“We all need to have a creative outlet - a window, a space - so we don’t lose track of ourselves.”
- Norman Fischer
People outside the academy may see us as quite regimented and boring, but a closer look inside my department will reveal some amazingly passionate and creative people. There’s the professor who’s published half a dozen scholarly books, but lights up when she talks about her novel. There are grad students who sing in bands, design jewelry, who act, dance, paint, sew, write blogs.
In some ways, academe itself is a creative outlet. We spend our days reading, writing, and thinking, and those of us who teach have the opportunity to exercise our creativity through the creation of lesson plans and interaction with students. But a lot of what we do is rules-based, judged by others, and the outcome is beyond our control.
The rules-based nature of the academic writing process often frustrates me. I used to love to write, and my writing voice was very authentic and raw, but my enthusiasm has been dampened along the way. Style guidelines are only part of the problem (and we could spend the rest of the day debating the merits of Chicago vs. MLA vs. APA, the process of peer review, and the merits of the Oxford comma), but they do impose restrictions. And even when we follow the rules, the peer review process usually results in one of two outcomes, “reject,” or “revise and resubmit.”
We’re told that a “revise and resubmit” (or, in academic parlance, an “R&R”) is a good thing - it’s not an outright rejection, and it means our paper has potential, and may be reconsidered if we make the requested changes. But sometimes reviewers give contradictory advice, or seem to be rewriting our work in their own voice. Sometimes they’ll send us a piece of someone else’s writing and say “here’s the kind of thing I’m looking for - you should do it like this.”
I confess that I often find the R&R process tedious and disheartening, especially if there are multiple go-rounds. There’s a point where it doesn’t feel like it’s mine anymore. It doesn’t say what I set out to say. By the time it’s finished, I just want the smelly old thing to go away, and any subsequent praise I receive rings hollow; I can barely recognize myself when I read it.
Well, it is what it is - that’s the academic writing process, and it’s what I signed up for. But that’s why this blog is so important to me. Here, there’s no one to censor my authentic voice, and I can share my thoughts with others in a spirit of freedom. I can use my natural writing style, which is to write once, review once (to find those places where, for instance, I used the word “discover” three times in the same paragraph), and then to let it go into the world. You’re free to like it (or not) as you wish, but at least it’s mine. It says what I wanted to say.
We love the academic life, but sometimes we need to throw off its chains. We sing, write poetry, play guitars, design clothing, cook gourmet meals, and some of us write blogs. It’s a way of crying out to the world with an authentic voice.
Find a way to sing your song. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong.