Finding your voice

One of the things I remember being told as a phd student and something I have faithfully passed on to others is the importance of ‘finding your voice’ in your writing. Some people find it quickly and easily, and sometimes that ease reveals a naive or even crude voice. Others take a long time to find it and it emerges not wholly formed but in fits and starts, sometimes fluid and in command, at other times stuttering and at the mercy of all the giants of knowledge whose shoulders you are trying to scramble up on. However it is come upon it reflects that point in research when you are no longer in thrall to others’ views and arguments, but able to deploy knowledge, data and evidence in the service of your voice.

Needless to say it took me a good while to find my voice and when I did I found myself then doing battle with my supervisor over it as it wasn’t quite the voice that the supervisor had in mind. This is difficult territory for a phd student as your supervisor knows more about getting a phd than you do (at that stage) and so it is wise to listen. But once you have found your voice you then need to nurture it so that it becomes stronger and can be sustained. Developing a tone or accent that appeals to your supervisor but does not feel authentic to you can have lasting consequences for you once you start writing independently and need to be confident and resilient in the face of peer review and critique.

Wrapped up in this experience of finding your voice are issues of gender and age and experience of different kinds of writing. All of these things can make using your voice in ways that meet the requirements of the particular form, phd, journal article, book, blog, while still retaining what is essentially you, somewhat complicated.

The reason for harping on so long about the phd experience is that it is significant in shaping your voice and your confidence in using your voice. Or at least it was for me. And the difficulty I had in finding and holding my voice in that process appears to have impacted on my subsequent writing endeavours. I don’t slot into my voice easily as some appear to. But rather I find myself flailing about and seeking refuge in over planning or more and more reading (though that has not been a problem for quite some time!).

I am writing about this now because in getting back into ‘the book’ I have been through the over planning and reference seeking (if not reading) and then all of a sudden something shifted and there it was- my voice, and what I wanted to say. And the words came. They are not all the right words and they are likely as not not in the right order, but they comprise a draft chapter on ethics and collaboration that is in my voice.

I am not entirely certain how to explain this, though it may just be effort combined with serendipity. But one thing occurs to me. I have not written an academic journal article for some time. For most of my academic life I have been engaged in drafting academic journal articles. While I write for a range of journals in different disciplines they all operate according to the rules and standards that define academic journal publishing. It is hard work to get anything published (as it should be) and it takes time and effort – so much so that writing in this way can become the default writing mode. And while it is a mode that permits the exercise of a voice, it does so in a particular, and I think for me constrained way.

Writing for a broader range of audiences and in a range of different kinds of digital and other media  – professional journals, newspapers, blogs and dare I say it, even tweets has given me different opportunities to find and use my voice. Purists will no doubt criticise my lack of attention to scholarly journal articles and that’s fine. Their time will come again as my research council funded projects come to a close. But for now I am happy to be drawing on all these modes of writing to advance the book. Long may it continue.





The object of my affection

Well it’s been a long time.

7 months to be more precise. Pretty spectacular failure on the book progress blog and indeed on the book. But I have an excuse, and a pretty good one I think. I broke my leg. I didn’t just have a mini-break, but more of a round the world trip of breaks, my age and other factors adding to the number of stop-overs and detours associated with my recovery.

I discovered that I could manage most things to do with work with a broken leg. Indeed being in the University Hospital of the university where you work means that it’s quite easy to have meetings by your bed. And of course the internet means communication with anyone, anywhere is possible almost anytime. That is once you have convinced the good people at the hospital to give you back the laptop, ipad, and phone you had with you when you fell and broke your leg, and which remarkably sustained no damage whatsoever.

And wheelchairs and crutches and good colleagues (and Uber) mean that it is possible to get to and from and around the University to go to meetings, teach etc etc.

But it was almost impossible for me to think deeply and creatively. My mind just wouldn’t do it. The slightest effort in that direction resulted in fatigue and general mind fog. So I focused on other things, one of which was getting a new job.

This of course presents its own challenges, including, if not especially, to the book. I have been in this position before, on a number of occasions and each time the book project is the one that has suffered as I settled in, got to grips with, devoted myself to and then got completely absorbed in the new job, project etc.

A stark choice faced me. Should I be guided by my past experience and just give the book up now? Or should I try and use the time I have between jobs to devote myself to it and see what I can achieve?

Wise heads might suggest giving up. But here’s the thing. I love the idea of this book. Over the many years I have been wrestling with what I want the book to be about, and for the most part writing and publishing on all manner of other things, this book just refuses to dislodge itself from my head. It sits there and sits there representing itself to me as what Lauren Berlant (2011) describes an object of desire ‘a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us’. To phrase ’the object of desire’ as a cluster of promises is ‘to allow us to encounter what’s incoherent or enigmatic in our attachments, not as confirmation of our irrationality but as an explanation of our sense of our endurance in the object, insofar as proximity to the object means proximity to the cluster of things that the object promises, some of which may be clear to us and good for us, while others, not so much’ (pp23-24).

This seems to me to be a pretty good assessment of how I feel about the book, my book, as yet still  very incomplete.

The reference to ‘objects of desire’ is taken from  Berlant’s book  Cruel Optimism (Duke UP 2011). Cruel optimism is a relation that exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Now I don’t want to think about my book in this way but there is a risk that it has/could become that. Another good reason for focusing on it for this short period and seeing whether there really is anything there, and if not, then calling a halt and focusing on flourishing.

The theme of this blog is not unsurprisingly connected to one of the chapters I have been working on this last week or so, a chapter on objects in collaboration. I have sent a first draft off to a critical friend for a review, so here’s hoping that unlike Mr Casaubon my great project is not doomed to failure.