This week my Honours student discovered her voice through her writing. We shared a great moment. Through the semester she (and I’ll not mention names here) had threaded together an interesting and meaningful narrative, vocalising tales from her data at our weekly supervisory meetings. Yet her writing had, until now, not reflected this. When I asked her to write just what she had been telling me rather than documenting dry facts, she was shocked to learn that she could project her own voice.
As is all too common, the undergraduate conveyor belt that had carried her through numerous processes, served to seal away her voice and package her as yet another replicant of the commodity we call Graduate. Yet, going away to write a few short paragraphs in her own words, her writer’s block was cured! Her output has increased tenfold, both in quantity and quality. We’re now back on track for submission, and I think she is finalising a thesis that people will enjoy reading. She too has been inspired to consider continuing her studies.
I, myself, have suffered writer’s block. For eight long years. I spent far too long attempting to write for an academic audience who deplore notions of self in research. My then mentors were intrigued by my narratives, but when it came to (co-)authoring them, we invariably failed to see eye-to-eye. Whilst in class, I was able to share my tales from the field with students, my writing became sanitised to fit a mould, to manufacture a product that nobody would wish to use. Invariably, little of my writing from that time has made it into print. I lost any joy I may once have had in the subject and in my writing.
I now see how constraining my voice, restricted not only my scholarly output, but consequently inhibited any sense of scholarly selfhood and authority, which one must acquire in order to gain respect in academic circles. It too limited my career progression so far. I could get angry, but I’m having far too much fun writing.
I too only recently (re-)discovered my voice. My realisation that there are communities out there who actually want to hear it was aided by a few key people. They’ll crop up from time to time in this blog. One community I must mention here though is the bi-annual Qualitative Research in Management and Organization Conference. Presenting a paper on my selfhood and belonging in fieldwork to them was for me quite daunting, given that at previous discipline-specific conferences I’d either been met with disinterest, disdain or worse still an empty room (and yes that did happen to me once). Yet, at QRM 2012, I found peers engaging with my tentative narration of my time in the field some ten years ago. This experience, melded with encouragement from the boundary line from my great mate and sociologist, Barry Judd. They helped me to not only accelerate my redrafting of my evocative tale into a journal submission, but also help me see that revisiting my fieldnotes and shining a different light on them has transformed my enthusiasm for the subject, my ability to sit and write, my potential as a scholar and my satisfaction in my life and work as a person.
Like my Honours student, my writing output has increased exponentially in recent weeks. While I still feel I lack authority in institutional life, I now have a path I can confidently follow through the academic machine. When my current writings are published (and I’m more confident they will be), I’m sure I’ll gain the confidence in my authority from my own voice, which I need for academic survival. I hope too that my (late) discovery will help me to continue to help my students to find their voices; and that I can, in some way, de-rail their conveyor belts and divert them to craft-based processes that liberate their voices, not shrink wrap them.
I found this cartoon amongst the dross of images from the TV show of the same name. In doing so, I discovered an insightful blog on the practicalities of writing: Ingrid’s Notes.