writing friends

This is guest post by Ninna Meier and Charlotte Wegener, both Associate Professors at Aalborg University, in the Department of Sociology and Social Work and the Department of Communication respectively. They have been co-authors and writing friends since their doctoral studies. 

We are writing-friends. We are also ‘just’ friends who like each other very much. But our friendship evolved through writing and we never spend time together without talking about writing, coming up with new writing projects and things we want to pursue through writing. We’ve been writing-friends since we wrote a paper together during our doctoral studies: here we explored experiences with writing in a time of our academic life where scholarly insecurity and identity formation was central. We spent endless hours during our doctoral studies reading each other’s text bits, paper drafts, reviewer comments, paper revisions and, eventually, each other’s attempts to finish it all in one coherent dissertation. We drank vast amounts of coffee talking about research life, life in general, and writing in particular. We partied, cried, laughed and worked hard – always, the drive to know and write qualitatively better was there. Now, our writing relationship is different and yet the drive is still there, as a third party in the friendship that, whatever we do, draw energy from.

We have heard many doctoral students share stories about loneliness and how feelings of relentless time pressure are preventing them from reaching out to fellow students and build writing-relationships. We share our story to point out that reaching out is not a waste of time.

5615282651_96a2332424_b.jpgOver the last year, we have been writing pieces of experimental and personal text to each other in a file called The Secret Book. We write everything that comes to our mind; the only rule is no censoring. We have written about death, divorce, dreams and a range of more obviously research-related things, but as a red thread running through it all, we explore writing as a way of thinking, sensing and being in the world as researchers and as human beings. We investigated and expanded our capacity for thinking and writing, the range of our words and as time went by, we realized that we had created something new. We have called it Open Writing. For a while, we talked about this work as living a quiet life ‘under the radar’, but over time it turned out to be central to what we do. We have also renamed the file and it is now The Open Book: an integrated part of our work. Here is a brief look into ‘The Open Book’:

Charlotte: 15/8 2016, kl 13.40: Entitled For your trip home: “I woke up to your text message about Hartmut Rosa’s notion of resonance assisted by your words: new book from the acceleration philosopher. Acceleration. Indeed, this summer has provided space-time themes to delve into, explore, talk about and write about. Before setting out to write an account, I increasingly experience that material is floating in front of me, and that I must turn it into the fabric of a text. I sense threads of space-time material today; Rosa’s idea of resonance, your latest account of your childhood garden, our trip earlier this summer to a remote island to revisit my grandparents’ house and the way it was all work and non-work. Jeff Buckley’s eminent voice reinterpreting the title song from the 1987 movie Bagdad Café while I, armed with an evaporator, remove layers and layers of wallpaper in the room formerly known as my kitchen. Buckley’s version of ‘Calling you’ is so cool, vulnerable, stripped. His voice is whining, trapped and yearning freedom –

A hot dry wind blows right through me.
The baby’s crying and I can’t sleep,
but we both know a change is coming,
coming closer sweet release.

It is a live version recorded in 1993, four years before he drowned in the Mississippi River, intense, gorgeous and wildly talented. He was/is/should have been my age. It is an intimate concert recorded one afternoon and later turned into a cult album. I wish I had been there that afternoon and yet, each time I hear the songs and remove one more layer of wallpaper (1980-red and then 1970-brown) I am in that café that afternoon, just a tiny part of me. I am also in the history of this room, which is now transmuting into a 21th century white, streamlined kitchen from where my future meals, parties and passionate conversations are going to flow. It has been the container of everyday family life, teenager pre-parties, mess, music and grownup love and lost love. I am in the cinema, 22 years old and watching Bagdad Café with my friends; I am the sleepless mother of a crying baby; I am your friend reading Rosa, sensing the threads of the text I am writing to you today. We know a change is coming, but we never know what it will bring. Rosa talks about tree time-levels; the temporality of everyday-life, the temporality of a lifetime (biographical time), and the temporality of one’s epoch (historical time). What about the future? We know a change is coming, but we never know what it will bring. Every move we make, every decision we take or refuse to take, make futures possible and impossible, we hurt someone, please someone else, strive to avoid pain and fail. Coincidence strikes, willpower and stubbornness force events through. Still, we imagine that this will lead to that, we construe coherent narratives about everyday-life, about our biography and about past and present epochs, maybe even future epochs. When narratives break down and this doesn’t lead to that, we say that we have lost our sense of meaning. That life makes no sense. Just like my GPS said during our trip: ‘Roads change all the time’. All the time? Laughing wildly, we imagined the road networks like the Hogwarts staircases going randomly up and down, ending nowhere, somewhere and anywhere. What Rosa proposes is that when we experience resonance, we do not seek meaning – or maybe we just experience meaning without concerns. It is a beautiful idea. He says that we need stable axes of resonance and that these axes allow for singular moments of resonance. That is what we are pursuing in our writing, we are creating an axis of resonance and we want to share it to amplify resonance in the world. I don’t even need to ask why Buckley’s piece resonates with me. It is simply because we have an axis of resonance from which a moment of resonance it allowed. Now this moment has turned into a text and made the axis even stronger.”

Ninna: 15/8 2016 15.52: Entitled Will you hold my dreams? “I have been away for one week and I have missed writing with you. I have ignored it. I have dreamt about houses, streets, growing vegetables (potatoes), living on remote islands, taming horses, caring for babies that were not mine, attending a party, singing in an abandoned warehouse, stealing a bike and getting caught by police, and planting tulips. I don’t know what they all mean, those dreams, but your beautiful and poetic text made me remember them and made me remember that most of all, I have dreamt in feelings! Feelings of loneliness, fear, determination, freedom, hope, love. Sometimes the actions fade and the feelings remain. My hope is that sharing this brief bit with you will leave a thread in the text I can pick up when I come home! I can’t wait, it feeds like parts of me are already in your kitchen, laughing, stripping off wallpaper, listening to music. Perhaps this is what resonance is like? It makes you feel connected in time and space, feeling quantum entangled with things and people?”

Our writing friendship makes us investigate what we are capable of when we face our fear and don’t run away, when we peel off layers of ego and write, raw, un-censored. Writing is a path to freedom: we address the monsters hiding inside us, call them out of dark corners and onto the pages where they mutate into words, sentences, and paragraphs; things we actually like.

Writing with no clear direction, no target journal, or no thoughts about publication is not a waste of time. If the text is good enough, eventually it will find an outlet. If not, these kinds of writing make us better writers, more sensitive researchers, and in our case happier human beings. We only need to get out of the way of the flow of words and see what happens. Writing is not necessarily a lonely endeavour. We can reach out, be courageous, and kind – and a writing friendship may evolve.

You can follow Open Writing on Twitter.


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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2 Responses to writing friends

  1. Dear Pat and colleages at AAU Ninna and Charlotte
    I found your concept of open writing very interesting. I reflect on whether this could/should be something that is relevant to teach academics at my writing courses and I am not sure about the answer? I can see the benefit of your writing as a way of connecting in your friendship and following each others’ reflections both concerning more academic and more personal things. But the text is not in any way a ‘presentation text’ – it is only meaningful for the ‘participants’ as far as I can see.
    I wonder how it differs from a good conversation? Of course you train your ‘writing muscle’ when you write on a text like this and in that way I guess it makes you all more efficient writers. I also know that theories om writing and reflection (fx Dysthe) emphasize the externalisation that happens when things are written down. But as a coach I wonder whether we can also focus too much on the written media – would some stories and reflections have an easier life if they were born in conversation without necessarily being written down before they have more form.
    Please don’t see it as critique of what you are experimenting with – I just wonder…


  2. Thank you for your reflections. We are in a process of developing the idea of open writing and it is much more than written conversations. Rather, we suggest that open writing is the continuing experimentation with representational formats as well new writing practices, some of which will lead to publications while others may be steps on the way. In our own writing courses we teach processual writing in a variety of ways and students pick up different techniques and ideas that resonate with them and their needs at specific times of the writing process. As we are sure you agree, there is no size fit all in teaching writing. We advocate friendship and sharing of writing practices for many reasons. Most important, we know many academics, students as well as faculty, who feel that writing is a lonely endeavor. We would like to make writing in academia more open to collaboration, sharing, and if we invest ourselves and are lucky, even friendship. We acknowledge that writing traditions and formal requirements vary greatly across academic fields and we are not done exploring how Open Writing might be practiced differently in different disciplines across academia.
    We agree with you that a good conversation is valuable in order to reflect, share, and develop ideas. The strength of creating theses conversions in writing is that we can return to them, elaborate our own and shared ideas and most of all, we can involve in ongoing conversations even though we don’t have time to meet or even talk on the phone. Written conversation can unfold across time and space and in our experience, distribution of writer and reader in time and space can spark different conversations than what might happen when we are co-located.
    We are not that interested in becoming more efficient writers and we feel that our students have ample information about efficiency. Rather we are concerned with ways to let go of performance anxiety and encourage our students to be sensitive, flexible and curious. One way to do so it to share writings before they are ‘perfect’. This exercise can be equally helpful for academic faculty.
    We have initiated the Open Writing Community and invite everyone who are interested in experimenting with writing and representational forms to join us:
    All the best, Ninna & Charlotte


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