Monthly Archives: October 2017

Reading, writer’s block, and creativity

I need to write a another PhD chapter, but I can’t, and the reason I can’t isn’t being resolved by the copious sensible options offered by Pat Thomson, or any other experienced academic writers.

Cornucopia

A Cornucopia

Since I have been here before, and become unstuck, I am not too worried (just a bit), and since I am bursting to write, I’ve resorted to my bloggy cornucopia for release.

Prompted today by a more recent Patter post, by a lovely colleague who tweeted how lonely he felt in writing his dissertation, by the seriously unbearable building work going on outside my study window, and by having tried all day to stop reading and start writing my own thesis, I have finally given up, accepted that, once again, ‘today is not the day’, and resolved to write tomorrow (as I have done for the past month).

Last week, I met with one of my two very ‘generous’ supervisors (in the sense that I feel they either over-indulge me or have too much faith in my vague over-ambitiousness, or both) about plans for this final year-and-a-bit of my PhD. I had a ton of plans – publishing, writing, re-genring – all of which have been causing me stress and anxiety. He listened, and then simply reminded me of how much I was enjoying the first couple of years of my research and advised me to find a way of enjoying it again.

What he meant was to simply get on with writing (the bloody thing) and not feel the need to do anything else. Writers-Block

So here I am. Resolved to ‘enjoy’, once again. The problem, however, is that I am enjoying the Reading way more than the Writing. And that is what is blocking me. I am finding the Reading far more satisfying than writing my own stuff, than re-reading myself, editing, re-writing (yawn).

Clearly, this is not good since I am now committed to finishing what I have set in train. But it’s a fact.

 

Becoming unstuck

What has given me some solace today is Keith Sawyer and his tome on Explaining Creativity. Chapter 17 is all about writing, and although he doesn’t explicitly talk about academic writing, he may as well be, because his anecdotes and insights resonate with writing a PhD thesis.

Here is a mash-up of what Sawyer says and what is giving me encourgement:

  • T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was arguably co-authored by his wife and Ezra Pound, both of whom had to heavily edit it many, many times before it became what it has become.

IMG_20171026_174904914I am in no way taking from this that I am going to get someone else to write my thesis! No! On the contrary, I am totally obsessed with my ideas, so would never be able to share them with anyone other than my supervisors and very close (academic) friends. What I am taking from Sawyer’s example is that there is no such thing as a perfect first or second or third (and so on) draft, and that writing is really hard work, requires dialogue with others and is pretty lonely without it, as he goes on to say below:

many successful writers seek out good editing, listen very closely to such comments, and are grateful for them. Eliot’s story shows us that creative writing is often the result of collaboration (p. 320)

  • Sawyer develops this idea with reference to other writers, highlighting that writing is a craft that requires hard work, multiple attempts and failures, that the Romantic impulse and one-off inspiration is not enough to get you through to your final text, and that the actual act of writing is helping us to think through our ideas:

Jessica Mitford engaged in a constant dialogue with her unfolding drafts: “the first thing to do is to read over what you have done the day before and re-write it, and then that gives you a lead into the next thing to do” (p.321).

Poet Mary Sarton wrote: “The poem teaches something while we make it; there is nothing dull about revision” (p. 321)

Novelist Ann Lamott, in her writing advice book Bird by Bird, emphasised the importance of generating “shitty first drafts” (p.321)

Since writing this post (and blog) helps tremendously with unblocking my own writing, I’ll end it with a quote, again from Keith Sawyer on p. 324, that resonates with where I am at right now (my bold):

… the writers all emphasised the constant dialogue between unconscious inspiration and conscious editing, between passionate inspiration and disciplined craft. They all agreed that it is important to listen to their unconscious. They kept notebooks nearby at all times so that sudden snippets of text or dialogue could be quickly scribbled down for later evaluation. They worked in a problem-finding style, starting their work with only a phrase or an image rather than a fully composed plot, and the work emerged from the improvisational act of writing and revising. There was never a single big insight; instead, there were hundrends and thousands of small mini-insights. The real work started when mini-insights were analysed, re-worked and connected with each other; and as with every other type of creativity, many ideas that sounded good at first ended up in the trash.

IMG_20171025_114446540

Mam Tor, Castleton – I still have a fair whack to go ….

 

 

 

Beyond Convention in Academic Writing

Academic Writing, Conventions, and ‘Who Has the Right’

Received wisdom continues to hold that you have to know the rules before you can break them. This is evident in a recent book (2016) on genre innovation by Christine Tardy:

intentionally departing from norms requires an understanding of those norms (p. 39)

IMG_20171007_085840From the perspective of fairness and access, Tardy also recognises (with reference to Bourdieu’s notion of ‘legitimate authority’ and ‘cultural capital’) that this can lead to an imbalance of power:

What emerges from this complicated web of authorial identity is something of a vicious cycle marked by power and access: Experienced authors gain access to the resources that allow them to produce legitimate language in legitimate forms and situations; in doing so they accumulate symbolic capital; their capital then allows them to exploit the system and perhaps stray from norms in ways that those with less capital cannot; through their distinctive uses of language they may accumulate further legitimacy and power within the market (p. 36)

I like Tardy’s book because it is both theoretical and pedagogical. It fully acknowledges the influence and importance of well-established scholarship on genre and academic writing (eg Swales, Halliday, Martin, Devitt, inter alia), yet also foregrounds the less visible work (in mainstream EAP, at least) of sociolinguists like Jan Blommaert and semioticians like Gunther Kress, as well a critical language theorists like Widdowson and Pennycook, who have invoked the importance of play, creativity and non-linguistic ways of thinking and representing knowledge. Tardy further provides classroom approaches to raising students’ awareness and choices when it comes to their own writing.

But what happens when there are no obvious rules to be broken, no ready-made templates to fall back on, and you have to literally invent your own genre?

This is where Tardy’s book panders to my interests. She acknowledges the importance of interdisciplinarity when it comes to thinking about genre innovation and moving beyond convention in academic writing:

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach is also valuable for understanding genre innovation in ways that are inclusive of diverse writers and writing contexts (p. 2)

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to writing matters to me for three reasons: 1) my PhD is interdisciplinary, and I am forever trying to get the balance right between sounding like an educationalist and behaving like a philosopher (an analytical one, at that!); 2) I teach general EAP; and 3) I’m drawn to the Finnish approach of phenomenon learning.

The reason I am keen on framing general EAP writing as interdisciplinary is summed up in Judd (adapted from page 126 of Judd, D. (2003) Critical Realism and Composition Theory, London, Routledge):

The traditional lack of a subject matter in writing courses is both a strength and a weakness. Sophisticated writing cannot be divorced from a degree of sophisticated understanding of a concrete subject matter. Even if you apply formal logic to your writing and detect logical fallacies and conflicting assertions in an argument, while important, this will not necessarily lead to a more sophisticated understanding and, thus, to more sophisticated writing. “How could someone learn”, asks Frank Smith (1990: 97) “to detect conflicting assertions in a chemistry text, an article on chess, or to estimate for repairs to an automobile, without an understanding of chemistry, chess or automobile mechanics, in which case contradictions would be immediately apparent?”. The answer of course, is that one cannot […].

and moreover:

It may be unrealistic to expect that your writing will get progressively better when you are writing about several unrelated topics over the course of an academic term because little opportunity is given to you to develop a more sophisticated understanding of those topics. When there is no traditional subject matter in writing courses, we are free to select topics that are of interest to us and that lead us to understand ourselves by understanding the world and our place in the world […]. Good writing is not guaranteed by good understanding, but poor understanding almost certainly inhibits good writing.

My solution to this ‘lack of traditional subject matter’ and to the need ‘to understand what you are writing about’ has been to draw on students’ own and emerging disiciplinary knowledge with a view to interacting and collaborating with the knowledge of others. This creates an interdisciplinary writing context and raises the question of how to negotiate rules and transgress genre boundaries whilst still being recognisibly academic.

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Barbara Brown’s ‘Heals Prints’ – disrupting panel boundaries – at The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

But now, the question of ‘what genre should my students write in?’ looms large.

Tardy’s book is providing me with ways to build on traditional genres in order to innovate and move beyond traditional conventions in academic writing. I am asking my students to create innovative genres because neither they or I know what knowledge will be brought to the classroom each term and what knowledge will emerge from their collaborative research. I have no template for them to follow. I rely on them to create writing that brings together content knowledge, audience awareness and modalities that effectively get their message(s) across.

Is anyone else grappling with these issues?