Writing looms large in my life now. I’m getting better at it than I was. I like short form [140 characters] but adore longer form, like blogs. And I recently completed some professional writing that’s rekindled my sense of having a voice in the anthropological world again.
It starts with an idea, then a conference abstract, then you give the paper, then they want an article for a special edition of a journal. Might not be an A+++ journal, but it’s not the local gazette either. I was challenged by the word length, not that it was too long, but that it was surprisingly TOO SHORT. Alarm bells should probably be ringing here… And it included the abstract and references. In the end the article was less than four pages. I don’t get out of bed in the morning for less than five.
So I dusted off my professional voice and found my writing and revision texts (thank you Wendy Belcher!) and discovered the pleasures of writing for a specific audience, for one that I wanted to convince of something that I knew had been ‘wrong’ and therefore something that was amenable to being written about. It wasn’t a research project, it was an ‘opinion piece’ was how the journal defined my submission.
I’ve passed first muster now as its been anonymously peer-reviewed by two international reviewers, the gold standard of academic journals, but it still has to be collated with the other papers and have an editorial attached to it. And then it’s still got to go through the online manuscript submission to the journal and reviewed again through the journal processes and then we’ll wait and see.
But its almost life affirming to see the words in print, “May be published as written”. I like that.
And just so you don’t think I’m gloating, remember that for every yang, there is a yin. My shadow paper is the manuscript sitting in the manila folder somewhere on the bottom of the pile in my ‘Inbox’ with the shameful email attached outlining the two reviewers suggestions for the extensive rewrite of my submission that went to the journal, what, nearly three years ago now. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that anonymous reviewers have read your work and that without any other context have critiqued it savagely, but with the proviso that with all these great changes, it too is publishable. It is so dispiriting.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do the work of the rewrite at the time that it came back to me. And unfortunately now that I’m a better version of myself, now that I’m my writerly self, it’s really too late to be dragging my fieldwork note out again now. It’s been too long ago. With the focus of reporting now having the urgency of the recent present attached to it, it’s hard to believe that even Clifford Geertz wrote about the Balinese cockfight almost 10 years after the event.
That anthropologists write in the eternal present brings ethnographies to life, makes life seem as if it was always so in this or that place and that is part of the strength of the anthropological tradition. This writing technique makes you feel like you’re there alongside them, looking over their shoulders and seeing what they see, hearing what they hear and so on. We are partly the voyeur, the participant-observer, the ‘etic’ trying to see and experience the ‘emic’ perspective, constantly a part of and separate to the people’s lives whom we study. Fieldwork really is an experience of immersion and trying to ‘write up’ the account afterwards will always be a pale imitation, a partial truth associated with the fieldwork experiences through which one lived.
But fieldwork has a use by date too. And that’s the problem with writing about it, or attempting to, too long afterwards. There is plenty of advice about this, but clearly this wasn’t relevant for Clifford Geertz in his day. For me however, my thesis and my copious fieldnotes will hit the dustbins of history, consigned to a dusty bookshelf in an obscure library where no one will read them. They weren’t that well written anyway, but they were a record of the work that I undertook, based on the idea, the thesis that I developed and this made my work unique.
How many people fail to publish? What happens to their work? Some self – publish, not wanting the angst of having to go through a publishing house. Others rewrite their thesis and produce a book. You are supposed to do this, but even better write and present your work as a series of journal articles so that other researchers can find your work, read it and make reference to it. And write a book too.
Well, there’s not enough jobs in academia to support ongoing research for all, so if you’re not on that trajectory, what do you do with your work? Let me know when you find out please…
Aside from the above, none of this can detract from the pleasures of writing. And this includes writing in various forms. I now take perverse pleasure in writing for my day job, enjoy adding in the flourishes with words that separate the wordsmiths from the technicians. Recipients of my writing will always be surprised by the lack of bureaucratic-speak, the openness and frankness of my writing when they receive it. They remark that a polished report was unexpected, or that a brochure was very highly regarded. But this only serves to remind me of how boring and mundane writing associated with bureaucracy really is.
More than anything it highlights what happens when you force yourself to do more of the thing that you want to do in life. In a past job I was heavily criticised for not having put pen to paper, for not writing about a project that I was involved in. I wasn’t sure what happened, but the climate in academia is not always a friendly one, and I think my voice got stuck somewhere. I look at photos of myself during that period and realise that I was 15kg heavier than I am now. And I never smiled. And I certainly didn’t write.
It’s not just a matter of typing away, there is an explosion of writing happening and we bloggers, we Tweeters, we essayists and academic writers are all joining the conversations, contributing our own thoughts in various forums for consumption by avid readers – yes you have to be an avid reader if you want to write, but that’s for another post. And writers don’t know how their product, how their ideas, how their creations will be consumed, or where, or when, or in how much depth. They don’t know if their materials will be referred to elsewhere, whether their ideas will stimulate more thinking on topics, whether they will offer clarification or lead to new vistas of thinking about how we live in the world. This is unknown, but exciting and I love that I too have made contributions to this world of thought and inspiration.
Go on, write something…