Inquiry, Part Two: What to Write

I had yet another rather sleepless night last night (not the puppy's fault), so I'm not sure that this is the best time to be doing this exercise, but the puppy is so cosily asleep on my feet that I don't want to wake her even though it is her breakfast time. Should I wake her or should I let her sleep? Should I try to write now or should I try to go back to sleep for just a little while? So many decisions to make every day, so hard to know which is the right one.

Katie would say, "The right one is the one that you are acting upon now." Perhaps. But does this always apply? She would say, "Yes, because that is reality. You can only be doing what you are doing. You can only think what you are thinking." And yet, how much of my life do I spend thinking I should be doing something else? As, for example, in my academic work. What if, I asked myself a few days ago, I just did what I do, followed my interest in a given moment? Would I actually produce anything that my academic colleagues would find worth publishing?

My first answer was, "No, it wouldn't work. There are expectations in academia that do not necessarily follow my interests." But is that true? Is it really true that I can't write whatever I want and still be a success as an academic? I hear this sort of thing all the time from my students: "I'm afraid that what I'm writing isn't really academic enough." To which I always respond: "Write from your own interest. The only real questions are the ones that you yourself want to answer." So why don't I believe myself when I say this to myself?

I am constantly afraid that my writing isn't "academic enough," while at the same time convinced that much academic writing is pointlessly abstruse. No, that's not quite true. I actually think the bulk of the work in my own field (medieval history) is excellent. The problem is, even as I think that, I find myself bored because so little of it answers the questions that I really care about. And yet, at the same time, much of it does.

I'm out-thinking myself here. I had meant simply to do a post on the thought: "I'm not allowed to write what I want as an academic," but even as I thought that thought, I knew it wasn't true. True, the practice of peer review for books and articles does tend to impose a certain group consensus on what kinds of things my colleagues and I allow each other to say in print, but the point is not so much to determine what we should write about as how we should go about making our point. In actual fact, I can write about anything I want, as long as I support it with appropriate evidence.

"As long as I support it with appropriate evidence." Hmmm.... So I can't actually just write whatever I want. There are standards. There are expectations about what counts as a Big Question, about what topics are actually worth studying. So perhaps it is true that I can't write whatever I want. Can I absolutely know that this is true? No. It isn't. People publish all sorts of things as academics in lots and lots of different fields. More to the point (and this is the big one), the best academic work (in the sense of the most original) is always something that had not previously been expected. Indeed, simply meeting expectations is an almost sure guarantee of not being published, since one's work will be seen as repeating something that has already been said.

How do I react when I think this thought? As usual, panic. And yet, interestingly, I realize now that it goes two ways. On the one hand, I am frustrated that some (anonymous) readers of my more recent work have seemed to be saying that I couldn't say what I was trying to say in this or that context because it wasn't the right question to ask. But, on the other, I am also consistently afraid that what I am saying isn't original enough, more particularly, that it is not something that has not already been said. What if I write what I want but it is already established as something that everybody knows? There is something of a catch-22 here, don't you think?

I am, I also now realize, actually afraid to think who I would be without this thought. I want to be a "real" academic, more than anything else in the world. Now there's an interesting realization. I have spent the past six months convinced that my problem was that I was trying to be something other than what I actually was when the real anxiety has been that I am not who I have been trying all these years to be. I have been telling myself that being an academic has been preventing me from doing all sorts of things that I actually want to do (be an artist, spend more time outdoors--the puppy's solved that one!) when all I actually want is to be better at what I already do.

Aha. Of course. I am the one telling myself that I can't write what I want, not "academia" or my colleagues. I am the one telling myself that my work isn't original enough or exciting enough or academic enough, not they. So what do I want to write that I'm not? I need to think about this.


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