Thursday, November 01, 2012

Who and Why

A well-organized writing process coordinates the question of what you're going to write with the question of how you're going to write it. It also specifies a where and a when for the writing. But these practical matters should not entirely overshadow the, shall we say, existential questions of who is writing and why you are doing it.

There is a decidedly practical reason to write scholarly prose: your career as a scholar depends on it. Now, it is very possible that this is a deep existential reason for you as well. After all, you may identify so strongly as a scholar that without an academic career you don't know who you are. Indeed, it may be very important to you not only to be seen as a scholar but to be known as an author. In that case, writing is going to be an essential part of what you are doing when you are being yourself.

On the other hand, many scholars today have, unfortunately, come to see writing as something they are compelled to do by an almost alien force. Or, rather, much of the writing they do is done as a reaction to this pressure. They must "publish or perish" and they will publish (these particular texts) only in order to avoid perishing. The sense in which this is an "existential" issue is a bit too practical. It's simply "do or die".

The who and the why of writing intersect interestingly in the conversation (or, more formally, the "discourse") that it hopes to make a contribution to. As an author, your identity (both personal and social) is shaped by the conversation you want to participate in with your peers. Who "you" are depends on who "they" are. And the best reason to write is because you find that conversation interesting and want your peers to know something that you know. Not only do you like talking to them; what they think is important to you. And it's not just what they think of you that matters. It's what they think about the object you study. You are profoundly interested in influencing how they think about a particular area of the world we share. You want to change their minds.

You should not raise these existential issues at the beginning of every writing session. Indeed, you want to leave them at the margins of your writing until the session is over. But they are worth reflecting on when choosing what you are working on. You don't have to be fully "authentic" at all times, of course, but you will find that your writing gives you more pleasure, and proceeds more efficiently, if it is something you are doing when you are being yourself. You will find that having what you yourself recognize as a good reason to write is good for your writing. It's good for your style to know who you are and why you are doing it.

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