Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rethinking Writing

Let's say for a moment you weren't an academic --- not one who needed to write as part of a career, anyway --- would you still write academic pieces? Still write for an academic audience? I talked to several people at the MLA who said even if they never got a job or followed their husband and adjuncted or transitioned out of the academy into a desk job, they would just make time to do their research and write on the side. I am dubious.

And yet, I still want to be writing; I think I am a writer.

If you could write anything at all, about anything you want, what would it be? Leave any idea of compensation or relying on the writing for financial support out of the question for a moment. If you could write anything at all, what would you want to write about? A novel? investigative journalism? stories about cats? a cookbook? What would be your purpose? Who would you write for? What sets you flowing?

I'd especially like to hear from my fellow "in-betweeners" and those who have taken the alt-ac path.

25 comments:

Thessaly said...

In some kind of magical dream scenario I would probably try to write a novel, or write pieces related to my field for publications targeted to wider audiences. You'll reach a lot more people writing for the Atlantic or the New Yorker than you're ever going to reach even through the best of journals. I don't think I will pursue academic writing if I don't get a faculty spot, but I'm finishing up my dissertation right now and may just be burnt out.

Rohan Maitzen said...

What an interesting question. I wonder if those people really would still write the same kind of pieces (or do the same kind of research) if there was no academic pay-off. My guess is that the sense of relevance, audience, and urgency that motivates such writing would quickly fade away. I am an academic and I have almost entirely lost interest in contributing to the micro-specialist discourse in my field. The kind of writing I dream of doing is still criticism, just of a different kind. Literary essays. What used to be called 'belles letters,' maybe. It's the literature that "sets me flowing," and in academic criticism so often that recedes into importance compared to abstractions or critical contexts etc. Yet as a professional hope, that would be no more realistic than becoming an academic is these days. What writer doesn't dream of the New Yorker, after all?

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Given circumstances that would make it possible for money to be no object and time to be no object, I would write novels and plays and all sorts of horrid poetry. I would probably still write about Shakespeare, but it would have no research involved -- just my thoughts on Shakespeare. Of course, probably none of it would be published. But if I could write full-time without worrying about publishing or the financial impact on my family, I'd do it.

Janice said...

I would write, even about my research!, but not for academic journals - I feel that 90% of the pay-off for that kind of writing is building your reputation within the academic subfield so that you can get a job or a promotion. Given that competition is so tough in those areas, why add to it?

I would continue to write popular history and fiction, which has been my major writing output over the last decade, as well as contributing to collections in my field (if accepted, naturally!) and maybe I could actually get that monograph wrapped up. But writing purely academic pieces in the academic journals? Not likely.

What Now? said...

When I left higher ed, I said that I was still going to write academic pieces but was going to feel to roam further afield. And I did do that with a couple of articles ... but the lustre had worn off long before the second one made it to print. (I did win a small academic prize for that second one, which was validating but didn't make me want to keep going in academic writing.)

The fact is that I've never really enjoyed reading scholarly articles, which always made it difficult to enjoy writing them! So if I could write anything, I would write the kinds of things that I enjoy reading. And I'm actually in that situation, of course, and am currently working on a history of the school I teach at -- a labor of love that uses all of my academic research and writing skills but will have a wider audience than most of my academic articles, and I'm actually being paid to write it. So I feel no real regrets over leaving academic writing behind, other than the loss of that tiny fantasy that somehow some article I wrote would change the face of what we think we know; but that was always a pipe dream anyway.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I cannot imagine doing any sort of academic writing if there weren't a career payoff for it. I don't doubt that there are people who would, I am just privately of the opinion that they are from Mars.

Anything at all, about anything I wanted? Umm. I have an idea for a sorta-novel (well, more of a series of vignettes) about Shakespeare's children and their relationship to the theater (because I suspect that they must have had some exposure to it in Stratford, given that his youngest brother and one of his nephews also ended up going to London to be actors). However, I think you probably have to be a more meticulous researcher than I am to write historical fiction.

Jillian Anderson said...

Me! Me! I am an academic librarian with a PhD (history) and I still do my own academic research/writing, because I WANT TO.

I left academia because it was becoming clear that I was never going to be able to get a job that would let me balance teaching with research -- at my first job, ABD, 4-4 load, a temporary job, it was very clear that I was expected not to publish, not even to finish my dissertation, really (I did anyway, quickly, to get back onto the job market). The next teaching job I got was also a VAP, 4-4, and again, no interest in my research. I just wasn't interested in all teaching, no research, *but* since a job that would have let me balance those just kept not materializing, I left and have pursued other opportunities.

At my current job it's OK for me to do scholarly research along with the library research I am supposed to be doing (which is somewhat less interesting...). I've been lucky too in that the history faculty at my university have been very supportive of and interested in my research, which is more than I can say about the departments I taught in. I still teach, but the load and the kind of teaching I do is quite different, and is better suited to me.

It does bother me, though, that people assume that I must have left because I hated academic writing, which is exactly wrong. I know quite a few PhDs outside of the academy proper who continue to do their own scholarship. It's a slower process for us because of our "other" jobs, but, at least among the PhDs I know still doing scholarhip, it's because we find it interesting and important.

(Blogger isn't letting me use my WordPress identity :( )

Uncle Angel said...

There were three reasons why I stopped. One was the unlikelihood of ever landing an academic job; the second was the want of a postdoc; and the third was the lack of access to a decent research library.

Having been teaching English in China for over ten years, I'm well out of the biz. There might be something here for me if I'd specialised in Chinese or if I was an applied linguist.

I do some creative writing solely for my own amusement. Often it is a reaction to the ghastly drivel which my students inflict on me. Sometimes it is a reminder of what I would like to have done with my life if I'd had the talent and connections.

Nitewriter said...

I don't like writing for other people so I quit halfway into my phd. Since then my publications include one novel, one self-help book, and two trade books. I'm working on a few e-books now, also academic-related. I write constantly and have about 5 projects going all at the same time.

reassignedtime said...

I'm not your target audience for this question, BUT. If I were not in a full-time, tenured, academic position, I think that I *would* still have an impulse to write about the literature in my field. However (and this might seem odd because I decidedly DON'T write this sort of a blog now), I think I'd be inclined to do a more "research-oriented" blog were I in that position. I think if I were out of the academy I would miss the conversations about the literature in my field, and a blog would allow me still to have those conversations in writing, but it wouldn't have the same limitations as writing for academic journals/presses. I don't do this sort of writing now because I get to have these less formal conversations with my students and colleagues, but if I left the profession, it's those conversations I'd miss - not writing for academic publications.

Professor Zero said...

I want to. I want to leave academia for law school and get an academic job in law so I could write the kinds of things I really want to for work and do the kind of work I really want to. I would use my literary skills and my LAS background but I would be working on race, immigration, trade, international human rights, and the prison industrial complex.

People concerned academia is too competitive, see my post here: http://profacero.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/on-competition/

Jillian Anderson said...

@Reassigned Time: YES re the conversations. I started a blog this summer for just the reasons you describe, mostly about my research, and a few other things. Blogger isn't letting me use my WordPress ID on this blog; I am the poster known as sophylou.

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, it says I have the OPenID turned on --- it has a space for me to enter the username (http://(username).wordpress.com) --- does this not work?

Of course, when I was saying I doubted people would continue to write academically outside of academia, I was thinking of academic articles --- depending on the topic I could see people branching out into general interest and popular venues to discuss the same topics as their research.

I'm surprised more people didn't say things like a cookbook or children's book or memoir ... or fanfiction or a blog. I'm not sure blogging would do it for me. Enough, I mean. Still thinking.

And Nitewriter, I find your comment that you don't like writing for other people so you quit totally confusing. Surely writing for the trades and ebooks is way more driven by other people than dissertating? Tell us more.

sophylou said...

Trying with the Wordpress -- it's been rejecting my username.

Like I said, I did start a blog, but academic publication continues to be a goal for me. I'm not that interested in publishing in more popular venues -- blogging for me is more about having conversations with people than it is about publication.

Nitewriter said...

Hi Sisyphus -- I write about topics and ideas that interest me. Honestly, when I get an idea and start writing, I don't think about who might want to read it when I'm done. Once I'm done with a book or presentation or whatever, then I think about who might want to read and benefit from it.

Once I get in the groove, usually about 3-4 times a year, I can write practically 24/7 and knock out a couple of e-books in a week. My hardback book was written in a month. I had an outline and some notes and approached a publisher about my idea. They said yes and can you do it by next year. I had the manuscript to them in a month. It took longer to decide on a book cover design than to write the manuscript :-) And they told me I was the only author they'd ever had that the editors didn't need to make any, not a single one, revisions in the original manuscript. (The publisher was Rowman&Littlefield)

When I've got my teeth in a project, I leave home and go somewhere peaceful and quiet to write. I guess it's like my own personal writing retreat. I do my best work outdoors at night -- go figure cause I haven't a clue why that works for me -- hence "nitewriter" :-) Obviously I need nice weather and if I don't have that here when I'm ready to spend a few weeks writing, I'll go find it.

I write for myself. I get an idea and just write till I have a finished product. I'm absolutely thrilled when others want to read something I've written but primarily, I write because I like writing. And it only works for me if I can write only when I want to, in my own chosen time and place.

undine said...

What an inspiring post! Like Dr. Crazy, I'm not your target audience but yes, I think I'd write anyway because (1) I've done it in the past even without an academic payoff and (2) some kinds of writing, like blogging, are too much fun to give up.

rohit kaushik said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
New Kid on the Hallway said...

I've left, and I don't write academic stuff. I'm with Fretful P - I always said that if I left the academy, I wouldn't be an independent scholar - I'd just stop doing history. Which has been true. It's not that I didn't enjoy the scholarly side of history - I did, and I left in part because I was never going to get a job that let me devote as much time to it as I wanted. But that was my job, my career - not my whole life. I enjoyed having a job that required me to write history, but now that it's not my job, I don't want to do what was my job on the side, on top of a whole other job. (If I'd left the academy because I won the lottery or something, that might be different.)

A lot of it is that now that I'm in another field, I want to put all my work-energy into that field, and continuing as a historian goes completely counter to that. Writing history is work, and I have a job already. I also spend my entire day writing, now, pretty much, so coming home and writing some more just isn't that appealing.

Currently, I don't want to write academic legal stuff, either, but I don't take that out in the future. In part it's that I don't feel like I have anything to say about law yet (having spent 10 years writing a diss in history makes me think that 4 1/2 years of law study/experience is not enough to have anything to say!). But it's also that I'm interested in the application of law, not the academic elements of it.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Forgot to add that if I could write anything, I'd write a kick-ass fantasy series. Kinda like a second Ursula K. LeGuin. Alas, I only produce derivative, plotless drivel. Maybe someday.

Professor Zero said...

I am like New Kid. Academic writing is the part of academia I like. I don't even like the kind of teaching that does not require you read academic writing. The reason I would leave academia is, too much low level and generalist teaching -- I really, really like archival research and theory.

So I feel as though I have already left my research and writing calling, without leaving academia, and this is why I am so frustrated and would leave academia. I think that if you are not involved 100% you should not require yourself to try; it is like playing guitar non seriously when the time is best spent listening to someone who is putting in the kind of time it takes to be really good. (Not that I do not favor also having recreational activity, you understand.)

Fretful Porpentine said...

... or fanfiction or a blog ...

I thought you meant stuff we would write that we AREN'T writing right now!

Feminist Avatar said...

I love writing, so I think I'd always want to some writing. And, I like writing academic stuff - more than I like writing more general interest stuff. But, I also wonder if I changed careers (from being an academic) whether I'd throw myself so much into the new thing that I wouldn't find the time to balance it with academic writing. Given that is my personality. Also because if I changed careers, I'd chose something I was passionate about and want to spend a lot of time doing.

Maude said...

I would write crime mystery novels à la James Patterson or Michael Connelly. Actually, my dream career looks much like Nathan Fillion's on "Castle." When I was in HS, I wanted to go to law school, not to be a lawyer, but to write law thrillers. And I would still write my scholarly book that I want to write, even if I weren't in academia. That's what I would do. I'd like to write a cookbook, but I'm better at making others' recipes than creating my own.

rented life said...

I've been trying to leave adjuncting but haven't found work that will pay (mostly I hear how I'm too qualified). If I could write anything it'd be a mix of things: fiction (some fantasy, some not), short stories, and essay like pieces on culture, life, personal and difficult experiences. In fact that's exactly the kind of writing I'm trying to squeeze in with everything else. I can't turn off my thoughts about those things--I can see the stories and people I write about. I think a lot about personal topics and find myself needing to write that out. It just comes out, like something I have to do. I want that to be my "career", while I do whatever else to pay the bills in the meantime.

Jeanne Desy said...

Actually, I got my PhD at the age of 54? in 1995 (critical theory, OSU) and quit academia. I have written a lot of poetry and fiction, done a lot of Zen, got some grants, but am now largely writing a blog (The Dalai Grandma) about any damn thing I feel like. I just mentioned you on it, in fact. I get excited making visual art and am now thinking I was tricked into thinking I was a writer and thinker. I should have been an artist and really starved.