The most frequent question writers are asked is some variant on, “Do you write every day, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?” I want to snarl, “Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist? Hilary Mantel
Mantel recently wrote about her own writing practices for the Guardian Review (April 16). She told readers that she gets up very early most mornings and writes, maybe for an hour, maybe much longer. Sometimes the writing flows, and sometimes it’s much more hesitant. Either way, Mantel doesn’t know till she’s read back what she wrote, some hours, or perhaps even days after, whether anything she produced was any good. She prints the text out and then is able to read it, at a distance from its production. Writing is not about inspiration, but perseverance, she suggests. It’s a job. It’s not a hobby.
The dictionary defines a hobby as a pastime, something pursued for pleasure, it’s not the hobbyist’s main occupation. So in saying she is not a hobbyist, Mantel is also saying that writing is her occupation and like any other work, it’s not something that is necessarily easy all the time. Writing is something that has to be done and done often – although fiction brings its own peculiarity in process, and is not like other writing, Mantel argues.
But it was Mantel’s reference it hobbyism that made me stop and think. While academics are not full time writers – we also teach and research – writing is a third of the scholarly job description. It is not, following Mantel, a hobby, something we do outside of the real job. It is the job. Nor is writing something that necessarily requires inspiration, or something that we can automatically expect to give us the same kind of pleasure as, say, gardening on the weekend. It is just the work.
Understanding academic writing as something other than a hobby, seeing it as part of the job, suggests that we academics need to:
- find a way to take writing seriously, to build writing into our regular work lives, and
- expect that, like any other part of our work, sometimes the writing will go easily, at times the words will flow, but at other times writing will be very hard work indeed. And like Mantel, we can probably best tell whether what we have managed to write is any good when we look back critically at it sometime later. The writing might feel bad/useless at the time but actually be OK.
I do wonder if some of the academic writing problems I often hear about –I have no time, you have to want to write, I just sit and stare at the screen, writing just makes me feel bad, I just can’t write everyday – might have, somewhere buried underneath them, some kind of hobbyist belief. Not a conscious belief, but some unwritten rule we have absorbed at some time…. A belief that writing ought to be pleasurable. And/or a belief that writing is actually not the real job of scholarship, it’s a kind of add-on that additional time needs to be found for… Writing requires a special occasion, needs the right moment, just like a sunny day seems right for planting out the seedlings.
I do wonder if more out-loud thinking and talking about writing as absolutely integral to scholarship might be helpful.
And if we see writing as academic work, how might this change our teaching? our supervision practices? And very importantly, how might our institutions actually go about fostering and promoting a writing-centred academic culture… while we can do some things ourselves – shut up and write for instance makes the practice of writing a more visible and shared part of academic life – we also need more serious recognition of academic writing as The Real Work.
The words work and load come to mind.