As I’ve mentioned before, our family has been dealing with a long-term significant health issue (hopefully we’re on the other side of it now). The stress of that, coupled with the day-to-day frantic world of teaching, supervising, running workshops and meeting existing research commitments has its consequences. I find myself rushing through papers, not enjoying the process and just focusing on deadlines and outputs. What I want to say, and what I want to contribute has gone by the wayside because there is simply no time to think or to work that out. In addition to all of this is the tenure-track pressure to be ‘the good academic citizen’, someone who fits in and conforms.
Marlene Schiwy, in a book called A voice of her own (1986), talks about her own experience as a PhD student:
“…after many years of rigorous academic work, my own writing voice – the voice that had known its truth and confidently written stories at ten – had been silenced. In its place was my best attempt to sound authoritative and erudite, dispassionate and elegant. Academic writing, I found, required me to leave out precisely what I cared about most in a work of literature – ironic, since I always wrote out of a passionate affinity with a particular author or work. Where my younger voice had been spontaneous and unselfconscious, my academic voice was anxious and unsure, forever second-guessing itself in the attempt to leave no nuance unexplored, no counterargument unrefuted, no reference uncited. In the final year of writing my thesis, I promised myself that as soon as it was finished, I would get back to ‘my own writing,’ to my own voice. Then I would write to please myself…But – lo, and behold – it was not that simple. My voice had not been just waiting patiently for an invitation to return, and hadn’t gone unaltered by my years in the academic world. Suddenly I wasn’t sure what my voice was, anymore, or even whether it was still there” (p.29-30).
How do we recognise our own voice among the many voices we have internalised over the years? How do we develop a voice that is no longer governed by the language of the collective but is also not just created in opposition? These are Schiwy’s questions. Her solution is in writing in a journal to “let the tongue try itself out” (p. 304). Write about what you really think about your research? What you really want to say? Write without restrictions, without conforming and then see what can be transferred, used, and shaped into your paper/chapter. The journal could be an old-fashioned book or a desktop document, but it’s private and it’s yours, and it’s here that you will find your meaningful voices because, of course, there will be many voices to try out.
The papers I have enjoyed writing the most and the ones where I have good responses have been the papers where my voice is unmistakable because I feel strongly about what I am saying. This does not mean I write my feelings into the paper or that my papers are very subjective, it means that I write less passively, more actively constructing my writing around a message rather than writing just to get it done, to get it finished and to have a product that will satisfy the external demands. Writing (even academic papers/chapters) becomes satisfying when we attach meaning to it and when we’re able to weave it into our evolving life stories.
Then it’s not just about getting the writing job done but an experience of discovery about who we are.