Graduate students often want to get into the field as quickly as possible. Getting ready can require a proposal, an ethics application, a presentation, and, for doctoral students, a comprehensive exam. (All, after a year of coursework and learning to read deeply). Preparing these documents takes time. It is in their writing that one becomes ready for research. This is the challenge. Graduate students (and the faculty who support them) often lament the travails of writing. In fact, writing a thesis, proposal, comprehensive exam, or an essay, blog post, book chapter, or anything, really, is daunting. Exceedingly so. The challenge? Not just what to put down, but how, and why, and how to revise, and what to change, and what to work on next, and, and, and so much more. So many big and little tasks to get done. To write, as a verb, at first blush, seems to encompass mere inscription with a pencil, pen, typewriter, keyboard, or whatever. Yet, writing is never mere inscription. When a writer says they are working on a proposal or a book, they are doing many quite disparate, yet interrelated, tasks. To write is to plan, research, draft, reread, revise, shorten, think, fiddle, adjust, fix grammar, change punctation, reorder paragraphs, check citations, reread aloud for rhythm, revise for consistency, retype to get in to the flow, rewrite to shorten, and more. All of this is hard work. Writing is just about the most difficult thing I regularly do.
“[W]riting is nearly always the hardest part of the deal,” observes Michael Taussig, the US-based Australian anthropologist who, late in his career, seems to publish a book a year, in a essay collection on writing.1 “Anyone who tries to write—a letter, a novel, a dissertation, a poem, or an ethnography—knows that it is a skill to be cultivated and learned through sheer doing,” observes Michael Lambek in an edited volume on writing ethnography.2 John McPhee, the father long form-creative non-fiction, describes, in his book on writing craft, lying down on a picnic table for two weeks fighting fear and anxiety with no idea how to begin a piece for the New Yorker.3 If writing is hard, and if it is much more than mere inscription, what does it mean to write? How is it a skill that is best learned and cultivated through the sheer doing? How to make it easier and less stressful? More to the point, when writing is required, what to do?
For many, the writing work, for it is work, takes time. A thesis proposal or ethics application might take a month, it might take six, it might take more. A thesis can take half a year, or much longer. A dissertations can take eight months, sometimes far longer. Books gestate over years, even decades. My book on writing has been gestating for six. Whenever I’ve written, with serious intent, and successfully, I’ve had time and the privilege to take breaks and to walk and to relax, when not writing. But, even then, writing has been the hardest, sustained challenge I have faced. Through a lot of practice, I have become a better writer. But, even still the task of doing the work with some seriousness demands as much mental energy, and a surprising amount of good old-fashioned manual labor, as ever. Writing is work; it is labour. For scholars (and others writers), it is the distilled form of this labor, the proposals and the thesis and the articles and the job applications and the grants and the books—that builds careers. To succeed as a scholar cum writer requires creating a practice of coming back to this repeated, regular work.
What follows are some reflections on this becoming a writer both in the preliminary moments of preparing for fieldwork and in the sustained practice of writing up. My concern is the process, not the result. This is my attempt to articulate not what a good piece of writing is, but to help develop a writing practice. It’s about the craft of work. While students and researchers are often eager to get into the “field,” and the field holds a special romance for ethnographers, I want to turn to the work that goes into the preparation for fieldwork and the work that goes into the writing-up. Over the following few posts, I suggest, with gentleness, that much of this happens in the writing, and in all of the messy tasks beyond mere inscription. It is through here that thinking happens. T is in the writing that thinking takes place. Which means, most importantly, it is in your writing that you develop your research
A proposal, like any scholarly output, is yours. Your thesis is, often, the first major independent project you will undertake. Joanne Bolker points this out in her excellent book on dissertation writing, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis,4 Her point is that the project, and by extension, the proposal, presentation, schedule, and progress, are yours. You have the greatest stake in their outcome. You are the one who moves things forward. You have the agency and control and reasonability make it happen. Preparing a dissertation is hard work; it is your work; and to do the works requires understanding how you work. Your advisors and mentors and peers and readers are there to help and offer guidance and sometimes be available to discuss progress and make sure you are ready for the next step, but actually moving a project forward in a sustained way is on your shoulders. It’s daunting, but many people have succeeded. How daunting, depends, in part, on your own style of work. If you’re like me, you are still figuring this out. Everyone works differently, and has different commitments and availabilities and responsibilities and challenge. To help you find your rhythm as a writer, I want to offer some suggestions.
I begin with caveat. The open secret is that everyone writes differently. What works for one person may not work for another. The ideas in the following posts may work for you, they may not. My advice? Work, and as you work, reflect on what is going well and on what is not working. Take the advice that is helpful; ignore the rest. Take the time to observe yourself as you work and as you write and as you revise and as you read and as you think and use those observations to understand your own ways of working. Be gentle. Be kind. Be calm. Accept your process of becoming a writer. Develop a practice of observation.