A Long Summer

Bent Galatius (uncertain), untitled, 1944

I took some time off this summer to begin work on a book. Like you, I had had a strange year, and as the spring semester drew to a close I could feel I needed some time to think things through in a new way. I was generously granted a leave of absence from my duties at the Library, and I cleared my calendar so that I had three hours a day to work on the book and the rest of the time to think and read and play and putter around. For a number of personal reasons, I have had to make some lifestyle changes (I turned fifty this year) and, since May, I’ve been running regularly, walking a lot, and taking care to derive pleasure from everyday things like cooking and listening to music. Like the book, it’s a work in progress, but I think I now know what Hemingway meant when he said, “I always live a hell of a healthy life for the first five hours of every day.”

I have written before about the idea that fell into place for me while doing the Craft of Research talks this spring. When I talk to students and scholars about their writing, I always get them to imagine an iceberg (Hemingway’s famous iceberg), with their paper above the surface of the water and their study below. The paper has a number of sections: introduction, background, theory, method, analysis, discussion, conclusion. The study has various components: documents, literature, experience, data, and a great deal of thought. I slowly began to notice the centrality of experience as the basis of our methods. Our papers are connected to our studies most intensely in our methodologies — our account of what we did to collect our data and why we did it. Writing our methods section is the closest we come to simply telling a story based on personal experience. It’s the most “literary” part of our paper, if you will. We just have to be honest, we just have to be ourselves.

This is a rather stern lesson, I know. It has become increasingly clear to me that academic writers (perhaps especially students, but certainly not only them) struggle with their papers largely because they don’t quite know what they’re talking about, who they’re talking to, or even, sometimes, who they think they are. They are using their writing to find out what they mean, to discover what they have learned from their studies. And I know that a lot of writing advice encourages this way of thinking. My book proposes a different strategy and, I must say, I’m not at all sure how it will go over when I finally find the courage to publish it. I believe you will become a better writer if you resolve to write down what you know for the purpose of exposing those ideas to criticism. So you have to begin with claims you understand and think are true. You have to write from the center of your strength, wherever it is.

Like I say, I’ve been struggling all summer with this idea, trying to find a fitting tone of voice in which to present it. I like to think I’m a pleasant and affable fellow, but there’s something hard and terse in my instructions for writers. I want to encourage writers to experiment, but I don’t want to nurture their illusions. So I imagine that my book, like my coaching, won’t be for everyone, and that’s because I don’t actually think writing is for everyone. By extension, I don’t think scholarship is for everyone either. We want to encourage our students to succeed in our classes, of course; but we must let them discover that they may not be suited for academic life. We can spare them a lot of trouble if they discover this before they enroll in graduate school. As we now return to the daily routine of teaching and learning, this is something I’ve been thinking about.

For me, it’s been a long, slow summer, with plenty of time to reflect. I have a really privileged position in the academy. Most importantly, I have the privilege to work with ambitious and intelligent people who want something out this life and want to make a contribution to their world. To this end, some have chosen (or will soon choose) to devote themselves scholarship as a career, and I wish them well in that, of course. Others will choose to go into one or another profession, or start a business, seek elected office, or pursue an art. If I have anything to do with them, it’ll probably be because they need to write something and want to learn how to do that better.

The core of my contribution will continue to be something like this:

Write what you think. Write in order to expose the ideas you actually have to the criticism of your peers. If you’re a student, always write for your fellow students — the most serious and interesting among them. If you’re a scholar, write for those one or two dozen people whose names you know and whose methods you respect. In short, write with a reader in mind who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. Get used to that posture. It is what distinctly “academic” writing is all about. If you don’t like it, there is no shame in that. It’s not for everyone. To be frank, we probably don’t actually need more academics. But while you are here, at university, try as hard as you can to become good at it. Even outside the academy, we need people who understand what it means to be critical.

Like I say, I’m a little doubtful about the tone of this thing. I know that by writing I, too, am merely exposing my ideas to criticism. I look forward to hearing what you think. The summer is over. It’s time to go back to school. Time to discover what I’m wrong about. To learn.

2 thoughts on “A Long Summer

  1. I hope your legendary affability is not absent from the book. It needn’t infuse every paragraph, but stern upon stern makes one a scold. Your style in the instructional videos — interrogatives, counterfactuals, and allusions to sport/art/craft— may provide a vehicle for this balance. If the tough love happens “inside” the craft of writing and the petcock is released in rhetorical moves, you may feel less trepidation.

    Just a thought after an excellent Pinot noir…

    1. Thanks. Maybe I need a shot of that pinot before I write!

      The challenge is definitely that of translating my personal style into a literary one. It reminds one of how much we take our personalities for granted. Reconstructing a pleasant one intentionally on the page is hard work!

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