I’ve just been to a summer festival. It was a picture perfect weekend. The weather was hot. While it was humid, it wasn’t so sticky that it brought the mosquitoes out. There was no need for wellies, the ground was dry and firm, the grass green, the estuary water warm, the evening breeze cool, the flower beds vibrant with blowsy annuals. It was a quintessentially bucolic summer occasion.
It was of those festivals where there is a mix of events. Some music, some books, some art, some cooking, some theatre. I like to mainly hang out around the spoken word events and break this up occasionally with music. Inevitably I go to listen to writers. They, of course, are there to talk up their latest book. However, they also often talk about writing and the writing process. Their conversations are not usually of the I-write-every-morning-for-two-hours variety. It’s more a case of this-is-what-I-was-thinking-about and I’ve-been-wanting-to-do-something-about-this-for-some-time and I-started-working-on-that-but-then-this-just-demanded-my-attention…
Quite often when I hear people discussing their fiction/non fiction writing it prompts me to think about what of their experiences are common with academic writers and their/our writing. And so it was when, at this festival, I heard Rachel Cooke note in passing the sheer chutzpah it takes to make a mark on the blank screen. A writer often has, she suggested, a distinct combination of egos: large – I have something important to say – and fragile – I am really upset by this mis-reading of my work. The large ego has to dominate the writing, she suggested, in order to actually write a sentence and then fill the blank screen. The fragile ego can’t get in the way.
Now this idea seems to make sense for academic writing too. Many academics find it difficult to start off a new text. They experience the blank screen or page as something very intimidating and off-putting. I wondered, as Cooke made these comments, whether her notion – a fresh piece of writing as a matter of chutzpah – could be helpful for academic writers. What if starting to write is not a question of being adequate or smart, or of writing the perfect sentence, but is just about being brave, having a go, taking a risk, of sending the fragile ego off for a little rest? Is this a more helpful way to approach the next academic writing task? Is it easier to be courageous than feel obliged to be clever?
Occasionally I hear a writer at a festival say something that makes me think about the distinctiveness of academic writing and the very particular challenges it has. I am jolted into considering how academic writing is NOT like fiction/non fiction. At the most recent festival this sudden awareness happened during a session with one my favorite British novelists, Hanif Kureishi. He was asked whether there were young novelists whose writing he liked, and who he read. Indeed, what was he reading now? Kureishi replied that he was reading the writers of his childhood. His list included PG Wodehouse. P G Wodehouse? Bertie Wooster and Jeeves? Yes indeed, that Wodehouse. Kureishi was reading Wodehouse, he said, for the elegant structure and organisation. And he should be so lucky, Kureishi told us, to tell a joke as well as Wodehouse. But it was a problem for a writer to read other people’s books. Kureishi didn’t want to end up with other writers’ voices in his head when he was writing. It might get in the way of his own voice. It was perhaps better to read translations where another writer’s voice was muffled by the translator.
Now this idea of having other writers’ voices in your head really struck me. It wasn’t just that I was surprised that someone like Kureishi would still feel that he had to work at his writing voice, and that he presented voice as a rather vulnerable accomplishment, always in formation, always liable to be overtaken by another that was strong and eloquent, well-modulated. Yes, I was surprised by that. But I also realised at the same moment that academic writers must, because of the very nature of scholarship, always be reading other people’s work. We must always be in conversation with other writers. We must always, using Kureishi’s distinctive formulation, have other writers’ voices in our heads.
So is this, I have been wondering since hearing Kureishi speak, why so many academics struggle with finding their own academic writing voice? We have a cacophony of other authors in our heads and thus find it hard to disentangle our own particular refrain? I’m still mulling over this possibility and Kureishi’s words. I’m also thinking about daily writing as an exercise in working on academic writing voice, of perhaps overpowering those other academic voices. And I’m pondering blogging as practice for developing academic voice and drowning out some of the other voices, even if on a temporary basis …
What do you think? Does the notion of having other voices in your head make sense of something difficult to and for you too?