One of my mini-preoccupations for PALS has been how I feel that I wasn’t taught enough about writing in graduate school. (See this and this.) I don’t think this was the fault of my graduate education as much as a general assumption that if you are getting an English PhD you know how to write. But we all need more practice and more knowledge about writing.
I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?” Argument, logic, rationality are the ideas that we focus on over and over again. And I’ve come to realize not only that I have exhausted myself talking about these things, but also that a intense focus on them was holding back my writing.
Now, I’m not suggesting that argument and research be abandoned in academia. I know that these elements are the bedrock of our disciplines, but I am saying that they are not the whole picture.
I’m not the first to point out that academics might not be the best writers. It is, in fact, something of a running joke. But the core of the joke is that academics have too much too say and their thoughts are too complicated for simple sentences. The joke is at its essence a self-congratulatory one—haha, look how smart we are! But I have had this lingering thought for a while now that just manifested itself as truth. Part of the reason that we are bad writers is that we haven’t been taught to write with emotional clarity. To me this means that we have been taught that writing is an intellectual exercise rather than one that uses not just our emotions but all that encompasses our emotions: our gut responses, our instincts, our feelings. Even in our humanistic disciplines, which are about how humans live in the world, our scholarly writing is without feeling. How do humans live in the world? They are messy and ugly, lovely and kind, angry and bored, loved and unsatisfied. And how do we write about them in academia? Our writing is stiff, awkward, distant.
But, ick. Am I really here writing about feelings? Have I lost half my audience at the mention of emotions?
Probably, but that is my point. We took the affective turn, but did we really learn about how to embrace emotion. If we want to be better writers, we need to seek emotional clarity in our writing. Rather than shy away from emotions I have started to lean into them, and I think my writing is better for it. I was always taught to see the argument in my writing. What is the argument? Where is your thesis? But instead of asking myself what my argument is, I’m going to start answering these questions:
- What is the truth of your writing? What is the core of what you are trying to say?
To be a good teacher you have to be emotionally present for your students. This doesn’t mean that you have to go around talking about your feelings all day, but the best teachers are open and honest and available. And students notice the difference. To to be a good writer too you have to be emotionally present to your own work. I’m guessing my dear friends who are creative writers know this already in spades, but we who write mostly critical work were never taught it. And it should be true of our writing too. That is the point I really want to emphasize: our critical writing can come from a place of connection rather than distance.
For me, writing with emotional clarity means that you have to start by being honest with yourself about your desires, your motivations. I was working on a job application last spring, and I was struck with the thought, why can’t I tell the truth about why I want this position? Why am I couching this all in banal language? Or a bigger question that always bubbles up for me when people ask if I’m working on a book: why can’t I just explain how much I want my dissertation to be a book? I want it not because it will make an impact in the field, honestly, but because it will be satisfying to me and important to some, even if only a few, people who care about such things. I want to turn my dissertation into a book for emotional reasons. Because I think the people I am writing about deserve a chance to have their stories told, because it matters to me to see the place where I’m from represented in print, because I look at the late nineteenth century and see how much of our current conversations are the same conversations.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we emote all over the page. I actually think a lot of my ideas about emotional clarity are questions about why we are writing the things we are and how we are approaching them. By this, I mean, that much of this work is pre-writing rather than writing itself. But I do think that starting from a question of truth has helped me get at a transparency of purpose in writing that has made my prose itself better. I also really believe emotion was something I was taught to turn away from in order to be the kind of writer I could be in academia.
I don’t know if this move toward emotion will make me an objectively better writer. And I don’t know if it is the best position to tell women to write from. (There isn’t one among us who hasn’t already been told that we are too emotional.) And I don’t know if it is the best advice for precarious faculty who might need to be quite “serious” writers in order to maintain their position or get new ones. And I don’t know if it is the best advice for people of color who often have to work way harder to prove their merit in the first place.
If you really want to succeed in academia how it is set up now, it might be best to ignore my advice. But I do know that writing like this has given my writing more reason to exist. And it has made me want to write more. Plus, the system that taught me to be intellectual instead of emotional in my work often did not serve me well. So I will write in my truth, or I won’t write much at all.