The other day I was listening to an interview with the novelist Victoria Hislop. When asked if she thought of herself as a writer, she said no. The interviewer was incredulous. How could someone who had written three novels, the first of which was a best seller, not think of herself as a writer, she inquired. Hislop explained that she did think of herself as writing, but that she would need to write five novels before she thought of herself as a real writer.
Academics seem to have equally ambivalent attitudes to claiming the ‘identity’ of writer.
Gary Olsen and Lynn Worsham (2003) asked a number of stellar social scientists the same question asked of Hislop – Do you think of yourself as a writer? Luce Irigaray deconstructed the question, Jacques Derrida deconstructed the category and Judith Butler talked about performing the act of writing. But Homi Bhaba, Clifford Geertz, Stanley Fish, Chantal Mouffe and bell hooks did see themselves as writers , whereas Stuart Hall, Henry Giroux , Paulo Freire, Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky didn’t. All of these scholars of course talked, as did Hislop, about writing and the way in which it was integral to their scholarship.
I can understand Hislop’s position and that of the reluctant academics. I certainly don’t think of myself as a writer but rather as someone who does writing. I write in order to achieve what I really do as a scholar – bringing a critical social justice framework to the task of trying to make sense of social and educational phenomena. Writing is both a way to make meaning and also to engage in conversation.
But I’m interested in writing and I do find it’s both helpful and stimulating to read what ‘real writers’ have to say about what they do. Even if I/we don’t think of ourselves as writers, but as scholars who write, there is still much of interest in reading about writing.
I recently found a lecture by Gary Lutz entitled The sentence is a lonely place. In it, he tells his own story of accidentally finding joy in language during an apparently mind-numbing classroom reading exercise. It was a chapter about magnets.
Many of the words were unfamiliar to me, but the words fizzed and popped and tinkled and bonged. I was reading so slowly that in many a word I heard the scrunch and flump of the consonants and the peal of the vowels.
If this isn’t a good argument for those who write text books to write well, I don’t know what is!
Lutz then goes on to analyse what is sometimes called authorial ‘voice’ through looking at the syntax of single sentences used by some short story writers he admires. His own speaking/writing ‘voice’ is also, as perhaps can be seen in the quotation above, a wonderful lesson in how to use vocabulary in surprising ways in order to make prose move well beyond the prosaic. It’s a great reminder that writing means crafting the text.
I’ve also been reading the set of essays Why I write that have been accumulated by the National Writing Project, a long-standing reform programme in the USA. The NWP supports school teachers to become more creative writers themselves and to design programmes that offer their students the same opportunities. The NWP is one of the most successful professional development programmes anywhere, and it is perhaps the emphasis on the capabilities of teachers to do writing, rather than on their alleged deficiencies as teachers of literacy, that makes it so ( see Lieberman and Friedrich 2010 ). A lesson here perhaps in focusing on our potentials to do writing, rather than on our anxieties.
Finally, on the academic writing front, I often go back to the set of anthropological musings – Writing on Writing. These resources were accumulated as part of a national intervention to support disciplinary development. Senior scholars reflected on their own writing in order to make transparent to younger members of their discourse community the processes that they used and the various challenges and joys that academic writing presented. The range of perspectives here is a useful reminder that there is no one best way to write and all of us find our own way to engage in the processes of regular writing.
Lieberman, A and Freidrich, N (2010) How teachers become leaders: Learning from practice and research. New York: Teachers College Press
Olson, G and Worsham, L ( 2003) Eds. Critical intellectuals on writing. New York: State University of New York Press