Wednesday, May 28, 2014


"Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed." (George Orwell, "Why I Write")

As a scholar, writing should give you pleasure. It is a big enough part of the job that it should factor into your assessment of the pros and cons of choosing academia as a career. You should enjoy reading and writing good prose; if you don't, you should really consider another line of work. It doesn't have to be "better than sex" to put words in "their right arrangement", but it should give you a little tingle at least.

Unfortunately, even those who are disposed to delight in writing, may lose the spark after a few years of academia. The dissertation, especially, has a tendency to transform our attitudes about writing, not always for the better. One force that undermines the pleasure of writing is the influence of what social psychologists call "extrinsic motivation". It was demonstrated many years ago (I hope I'm not now perpetuating one of the many myths of social psychology!) that if you reward children for doing something they would normally do just for fun, they lose their natural, intrinsic impulse to engage in it. "Publish or perish" and the strictly quantitative interest of university administrators in our writing no doubt has a similar effect. But too many scholars these days also simply don't give themselves the time they need to enjoy the act of writing. In some cases, we might say that they don't have the time, and somewhere in between this give and that have we might encourage them to make time.

I have a small eclectic collection of how-to books, ranging from How to Draw Hands to Rational Grazing. One of them is a sex manual called Total Loving. The author encourages couples to organize their lives in a way that makes ample room for sexual pleasure. She suggests creating a "love environment" that provides the space, privacy, mood and time that is required for enjoyable love-making. Most of us recognize the problem. The pleasure of even the most naturally pleasurable activities is sometimes unavailable to us simply because we don't take control of the environment in which they are supposed to happen. Or because we do it for the wrong reason.

(See also my other blog.)


Julia Molinari said...

Hi Thomas,

I like your focus on actually 'enjoying' writing. It's an aspect that I have been pondering for a while.

I refer to this a little less explicitly (!) in here:


and also here:


Writing 'pleasure' seems to be associated more with creative writing.

I also think that when we take the pleasure out of what is in fact a defining part of scholalry work, then we run the risk of renouncing control over our own work and (overly)outsourcing it.

Thanks for echoing the aesthetic perspective,


Thomas said...

Thanks, Julia. If you think this post is explicit, you should see my X-rated version: "The trick is to appropriate your own skin."