How We Write

Putting a piece of writing out into the world is a bit like tossing a pebble down a mountainside. Usually it clatters down alone, bouncing a bit off this outcrop or that. It eventually loses momentum, settles in with other older pebbles, mostly forgotten. But sometimes, the pebble will bounce in such a way that it triggers other pebbles, and a little landslide ensues. Larger chunks of rock start to break loose and fall, and there the metaphor breaks down.

My blog post from a few months ago, Wilderness Group Tour, ended up being just such a pebble. It is far and away the most visited entry I’ve posted on this blog. It was shared quite a bit on Facebook, and several long, involved, thoughtful, rewarding discussions grew around it. One of these discussions grew into a twinned pair of blog posts by Professors Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie, both here at the University of Toronto. These were partly a response to my post. But more importantly, the blog posts were by two well-respected tenured academics at a big research institution. They were throwing aside the curtain, Wizard of Oz—style, to reveal the truth about their writing practices. And how does the wizard make her magic? How does the writing get done? In both cases: not the way the “Finish Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day” crowd says. Not tidy, not neat. Not too different from the way both Akbari and Gillespie wrote as graduate students, in fact. Productive panic, instrumentalized anxiety, terror of the deadline.

With those posts, the illusion that successful academics all follow a stately, graceful, calm and confident writing practice has been destroyed – to the benefit of everyone (me included) who has angsted out about their heretofore pathologized ‘bad’ writing practice, their inability to become deliberate steady 500-words-a-day types. Scholarly writing, it turns out, is as idiosyncratic as the scholars who produce it, and the methods and manners of writing vary hugely with personality and context.

And there bloomed a book. A collection began to quickly coalesce, taking as starting points my blog post, Akbari and Gillespie’s posts, Stuart Elden’s response to all three, and Alice Hutton Sharp’s post about a writing group organized by graduate students that actually persisted and succeeded where so many fail. Under Akbari’s editorial guidance, more voices were brought in, ranging widely in age, embodiment, background, discipline, position within the broader academy. How does disability intersect with writing? What about babies and cancer and other Big Life Events? What about collaboration? Editing? What about writing ‘lockdowns’ to finish (or take a big chunk out of) a book-length project? How do we write? How have we written? The book emphatically does not dictate how to write. It doesn’t speak in one voice. It’s about what it’s like to write in the Humanities in the present moment, as stressed imperfect humans who are doing their best with often-scattered minds and always-fallible bodies. No bullshit.

How We Write Cover Image: detail from "Wabi Sabi Agness Martin" by Yvonne Wiegers (yvonnewiegers.ca)

How We Write
Cover Image: detail from “Wabi Sabi Agnes Martin” by Yvonne Wiegers (yvonnewiegers.ca)

This is How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blank Page. It’s now available from punctum books, an exciting publisher dedicated to putting challenging and unusual pieces of academic writing into the world. In line with punctum’s mission, the book is free to download as an e-text (you can and should make a donation – punctum are a registered charity, and they do good work) and cheap to buy as a thing-you-can-hold-in-your-hands.

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