Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Writing, easy and hard

Posted: Oct 30, 2022 19:10;
Last Modified: Oct 30, 2022 20:10


“I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.” This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of Literature.

James Bosworth, Life of Johnson.

I’ve spent the weekend sending queries to agents and presses for my draft novel, Glamour Boys. So this seems as good a time as any to think about writing, for money and otherwise.

As an academic, of course, I am in some ways a confirmation of Boswell’s belief that there are numerous instances to refute Johnson’s “strange opinion.” Over the course of a thirty-odd year career, I have written a reasonable amount: two books, forty-odd scholarly articles, perhaps a hundred and fifty or so lectures, maybe a dozen newspaper articles of various kinds, twenty odd grant applications, and dozens of blog posts on academic and union subjects.

But very little of this has been done directly for money. While I am paid to be a professor, and research is part of my job, there’s no one-to-one relationship between my pay and my “output.” If I publish a lot — and do excellent teaching and a lot of service — I might get a “merit” raise of about $350 at the end of the year. But this is not keyed specifically to writing: success in other aspects of research — grants and prizes for example — also count, there’s no dollar-to-page or article-count ratio involved in the calculation, and you simply can’t get it if you don’t do well in other, non-writing, areas of your job. If I don’t publish anything, there’s a risk that I might end up getting fired — i.e. not paid. But since research is only one part of my job and there are solutions to lack of publication short of firing, that is actually a relatively unlikely outcome.

Even before I was tenured, or hired into a tenure-track job, I wasn’t really writing directly for money. Research output is an important way of profiling oneself on the job market — getting an entry into consideration for the vacancies that exist, such as they are. But again, you aren’t paid directly for writing and positions are not distributed on the basis of who published the most. Once again, writing is important, but it isn’t paid on a piece work basis. And ditto for tenure. You are unlikely to get it if you don’t publish, but it isn’t payment for publication.

More importantly, I suspect most people — including me — tend not to get into research because they think they will get paid, for writing or their research. In my case, at least, I wanted to be a professor for a long time before I became one, but less because of the money than what I thought was the lifestyle and the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of a topic. I really enjoyed doing research and contributing to increasing our knowledge about something (when I first started I was less concerned with what I would contribute to than that I’d contribute to something). And I really liked what I’d seen of academics: their commitment to research and teaching and a community of learning and specialisation.

The weird thing in all this is that I’ve also always found the writing hard. Specifically the kind of academic writing, in fact, that I’ve always aspired to do. Not all academic writing, mind you: I’ve never had trouble writing talks, and over time have found it increasingly easy to write grant narratives, newspaper pieces, blogs, policy writing, etc. — pretty much everything except for the main pieces of writing my career is based on. And it isn’t that I find it impossible: as I say above, I’ve published a reasonable amount as an academic at my particular career stage.

What I mean is just that I find it really hard. I like it when my pieces are done, and there are quite a few that I’m very happy with and think are well-written. But the production of that work is not in any way relaxing or comforting. I always struggle with that writing. Always feel a strong sense of imposter-syndrome, and never find that the words or the ideas just come.

Just how difficult it is has become really clear to me in the last couple of years, as I’ve completed a draft of a novel and an early draft of a memoir — a memoir focussed on “the unessay,” a way of teaching academic writing, in fact. After a bit of a rough start on the novel, I came to find those quite easy to write as well. For most of 2021-2022, for example, I was easily able to write about 700 words an hour on the two books, for a couple of hours each day. In fact, I came to rely on that writing to make the rest of my day enjoyable: I could put up with the meetings, emails, and academic strife better, I found, when I had a couple of hours of writing on those books out of the way first.

This is something that has never been true of academic articles.

Throughout my life I’ve wondered why this is. And while this is the point in an essay where you turn to the concluding realisation you’ve been building to, in this one, I don’t really have anything like that. I still don’t know why it is so hard. My best guess is that it is some combination of self-image and, weirdly, sense of (lack of) audience. Ever since I was an undergraduate, scholarly research and writing is the one thing I’ve wanted to do well — I was less concerned about it in high school — and I suspect that my difficulties with it came from a kind of perfectionism associated with that desire. If doing something well is core to your self-identity, I assume that raises the pressure on each performance: I don’t want to write good articles, I want to write perfect ones.

The other one, oddly, is a sense of a lack of an audience. All the other writing I have done — and all the other writing I find much easier — has an obvious (to me) audience: adjudication panels for grants, newspaper readers for op-eds, blog-readers (?) for blogs, union members or members of the administration for union blogs, the academics I know for talks. For some reason, however, I’ve never been able to have this same sense of audience for my academic writing. Perhaps this too is related to perfectionism: unlike everything else I write, articles are not written for audiences — they are written for eternity.

This past week in the lab, we’ve been discussing the degree to which it is o.k. to be wrong in one’s academic work. Not sloppy or inaccurate in what you do. But allowing yourself to be preliminary, to push ideas out, to challenge others to think things through differently. I know that some of my favourite researchers do this — in Old English studies, for example, I often say that I’d rather be Kenneth Sisam or Kevin Kiernan and have dozens of theses written to argue that I’m wrong in important areas I’ve opened up than be somebody who has only published things that are inarguably correct. I love the ease with which academic writers like them engage with their topics. You can see that they are enjoying their writing and an important part of the pleasure in reading them is probing their evidence and arguments to see where or if they are wrong or need qualification. Indeed that probing is an important part of their contribution to research.

And I’d pay anything to be able to be able to write like that.





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