Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Writing

This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. (Stephen King)

Lately, people at my seminars and workshops have been asking whether I've read Stephen King's On Writing. Well, I'm reading it now and it's a perfectly good book about writing. But I want to emphasize that it is about writing fiction. This gives me an opportunity to say a couple of things about the difference between academic writing and literary writing.

Stephen King is a professional writer. He earns his money by writing books, full time. Academics are often only part-time writers; they also have to teach. In fact, writers like King often paid the rent by working as a teachers until they published their first major book. But even a very successful academic writer will, in most cases, not have been "freed by the pen" from teaching. In fact, many academic writers see teaching as an important part of their lives as researchers and will continue to do so no matter how much they publish. So that's one important difference.

The second is more substantial, I think. King writes works of fiction, and as he describes it himself he doesn't even outline his plots in advance. He just sits down in the same place at the same time every day and makes things up, and his readers want mainly to be delighted by the stories he comes up with. Readers of academic writing make very different demands; they want to be persuaded. But they are a very hard bunch to move. While novelists are writing for readers who willingly open their minds to the imagined worlds the writer is trying to conjure up, academic writers are writing for more closed-minded people. That's just a fact of academic life. Critics are a necessary evil for novelists; they are the primary audience for academic writers.

That said, King's basic practical advice of course holds. If you want to be a good academic writer you need to write regularly, i.e., according to a repeating pattern. Give your muse a chance to find you. But, as King also notes, "Don't wait for the muse." Keep your appointment with your writing self as you would keep your appointment with your students whether you feel like it or not. Don't count on inspiration. Just do the work.

No comments: