Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dueling monkeys? (a collision of creative and academic writing)

In the past several years, I have become an academic cynic. I think the higher education model in use today is archaic, self-important, and unwieldy. In a world whose societies and economies have undergone change after change after change, academia has clung to the same basic framework and expectations it started with a handful of centuries ago, and it just isn't sustainable.

Yes, I'm finishing a Master's program. I hear the clanging of hypocrisy. To be fair, two years ago, this was my best option for income and health care. I don't think anyone will convince you that expertise in Russian Literature is really a necessary skill-set for the wide, wide world.

Anyway, to offset my growing resentment of the culture I have surrounded myself with, I started reading the Chronicle of Higher Education. I try to read news sites daily anyway, and I do like the idea of higher education, so I figured this was probably a good olive branch to offer to the abstract Lords of Academe that could care less about my opinion of them.

Again, anyway.

A political scientist from Duke published a writing article earlier in the week entitled "How to Write Less Badly" (under the category Do Your Job Better, no less). Easy bet I read it.

It was... good. It was good! But it was also so familiar. It's the kind of advice that floats around writing classes, around blogs, around twitter, around critique groups. You really should read the article for the elucidation of these tips, which are to the point and useful, but in short:

1. Writing is an exercise.
2. Set goals based on output, not input.
3. Find a voice; don't just "get published." (and and AND note the proper use of a semicolon, in a concise, perfectly lucid title sentence. So okay, yeah, there ARE things about academe that I do appreciate; i.e., snobby proper punctuation.)
4. Give yourself time.
5. Everyone's unwritten work is brilliant.
6. Pick a puzzle.
7. Write, then squeeze other things in.
8. Not all of your thoughts are profound.
9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong.
10. Edit your work, over and over. (which includes the necessity of second readers/critiquers)

Familiar, right? I have just never seen it in the academic context, and that makes all the difference. Because, as much as I understand all of this innately, it still takes effort and the occasional consternation to apply it successfully to any of my WIPs – especially the second half of the list; points 8 and 9 are my very favorite, and also, the most difficult to lock down. Darlings? Darlings?

But here's the thing (and also, here is where I end up sounding like a jerk admitting it): I'm really a very skilled academic writer. I don't stress over it; I hardly even think about it. I just sit down and I do it. It's a set of conventions, a collection of expected terms and theories and modes of thought, of phrasing and arguing. It's a convention I TOTALLY GET. And so I just write it.

I am proud of what I write, on some level, but on another – I just don't really care. I see little point in contributing to human knowledge on the topics I write on for my classes, or even for my own research. I am interested in Siberia's construction of a national identity through literature that is separate from Russian identity, but ultimately, I really believe that the important thing being established by my education is my education. My brain is becoming faster, smarter, more likely to make more complicated connections. I feel more useful to greater society because I believe education makes me a better thinker, and – therefore – a better doer. I am a better writer of fiction because of of my higher ed experience, but more because I think better ALL THE TIME, in response to any piece of information from anywhere.

The difference is that I DON'T CARE. With academic writing, I am detached and a little wry, and I accept that I am working within conventions. This lets me have complete faith in myself, and I get the work done that much faster, and that much better for it.

So seeing common writing tips in a new context, one in which I don't really need to be reminded of said tips, really illumines the ways in which they can be even more useful in my personal writing. And that is both helpful, and humbling.

Amazing that a political scientist got me to see it; maybe academe isn't horribly useless quite yet.

Although, if we re-introduced duels...

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