The new academic year began yesterday. This morning, our house was frantic (to say the least) as my two teenage boys had to get up early, make their lunches and find all their school stuff. My youngest has a heavy academic programme this year and last night his chest was tight with asthma – something he hasn’t had in a long time. I find myself trying to control things very tightly in order to cope with all of life’s demands: work, home and children’s lives. I write lists for everyone reminding them of what they need to do, I try to anticipate food/house needs far in advance so that I don’t have to do any mad dashes and I have dreams of a packed freezer with pre-cooked meals so that I don’t have to keep thinking about what to cook. (In a house with two teenage boys, food is a serious business). And yet, the more I try to control everything, the more I flounder – possibly because life is uncontrollable. My energy gets spent on trying to achieve the impossible.
The same thing happens with writing, especially academic writing. Because it is so hard, the consequences so high, and the time so short, our writing takes place with us pushing our way through fear and anxiety. Our way to overcoming the angst is control. So we try to ‘know’ everything we’re writing about by reading more and more. Then we plan, structure and tie it down so that it doesn’t become unruly and take off.
Donald Murray, one of my favourite authors, writes in Writing to Learn: “I have learned to accept the emptiness as part of the writing process. Do not struggle, flail about, but make myself calm and receptive” (p. 57). It seems a counter-intuitive process to associate with academic writing because ‘research’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘content’ should come from ‘out there’ rather than from within. What do we know? How can our thoughts compare to the people we read? But I have found that when I let go of the idea of controlling my writing, amazing things happen. I usually only let go right at the end when I’m down to the wire and I have to get the paper written. That’s when I start talking to myself: What are you thinking here? What is it, really, that you want to say? Why do you want to say this? Why is it important to say this? Instead of looking outwards, I begin to look inwards and to trust that I will know something and that something will be useful.
When we write like this, the process is enabling, empowering and creative. Billy Collins, in his poem Introduction to poetry, (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html) says “I ask them to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a colour slide”. He ends: “But all they want to do/ is tie a poem to a chair with a rope/ and torture a confession out it”. Don’t tie your research down and torture it. Hold it up like a colour slide to the light and be receptive. Accept the emptiness as part of the writing process.