Dorothea Brande. Becoming a Writer. Tarcher. 1981

Five in the morning, coffee and sleep on the brain. What to write? How to describe in words the feeling of fieldwork? Writing is what we do as anthropologists, but sometimes the words are hard to come by. This is my morning ritual, writing twenty pages. Academics are wordsmiths, we are writers. Our smithies are notebooks, pens and paper, and laptops. Most of my adult life I have been trying to write. To form a sense in words for others. Most of this, as a University student, sometimes as a newspaper editor, as a blogger, and increasingly as an anthropologist. We write about research, we write about the work of others.

Dawn is an hour away, my pen slowly doing the work of meaning making. Write early and write regularly is Anna Tsing's advice. A ritual I am trying to adopt. Write at five o'clock in the morning force yourself to put pen to paper. A procedure in which words flow freely some mornings and others, like today, the road is tortuous and tedious, my words irrelevant, and I fear ordinary. Plodding and anxious prose with little said between two periods.

What nobody told us is that when we start fieldwork we are becoming anthropologists, and we are becoming writers. Writers have to draft the text, and there are tools and tricks of the trade. Rhythms that ease the work. Prose is our life, our sweat, and our tears. Writing is what I learned to do in the field, and if no one taught us research methods, even less to write. The evening tradition of making sense of the morning, or the morning ritual of trying to combine words to make sense of experiences, rumours, practices and suspicions. Writing is what makes up the anthropology of sense making. The hermeneutic circle of life is the job of fieldwork. We are in fact novelist, albeit with constraints of truth, fact, and reality. Our writing is as challenging.

Last week I read Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. There are three pieces of advice that resonate with me:

  1. Write early, and write every day. Write in the early-morning moments just after waking up. A moment of creativity. Cultivate this time, use it. First thing, every day. Pay attention to when those morning sessions are stronger, what did you do the night before? Do more of that.
  2. The rigorous mind. Cultivate the discipline to write early, but also set a time to write, a time that forces the creative side out. Brande says, "Set your self a time, say 12:30, and write for half an hour.” Come hell or high water, write.
  3. Do not read other people's work, do not talk about your writing, do not read the newspaper, do not watch movies, and do not go to the theatre. I suspect she would be appalled at blogs and Twitter as distractions as well, but her point is that writers thrive of an inner dialogue of our conversation with ourselves. The dialogue can be cultivated with mundane and repetitive tasks, but destroyed by words, read or heard.

The last piece of advice is the hardest to follow; and maybe the least helpful. I find myself reaching for the radio, for the internet, for a newspaper, for a cereal box. But, maybe there is a time to read, and a time to write.