Right now I should be working on an article for an academic journal. I should also be packing for a trip overseas for six weeks that starts next Friday. I should be writing these essays because I committed to them – and myself.
But, I am in that weird point in writing my journal article where I have an good outline, some well-crafted ideas, citations that fit under each heading, and a generally positive attitude about the research; but I am struggling to make the jump from good ideas written badly on the page to good ideas communicated articulately and with a well-structured framework of evidence. It seems like a chasm that is just too wide to cross. And yet, this inevitably happens every time I write an article. And every time I somehow get over the divide and get to the point where the article is published. So, how does it happen? It’s a little bit discipline, a good bit carrot and a big metaphorical stick all mixed together. Usually there’s a strict deadline that I cannot change. It’s fear of professional embarrassment that drives me to finish on time. It’s professional pride that drives me to keep revising until there’s a decent article to share.
It’s the same with personal writing. I have an idea. Maybe I scribble it down some where to go back to. Maybe the idea seems pretty good on second thought. Maybe I know writing on this topic is necessary even if it may become a draining project. But then there it is. The gap. The steps between the good idea and the polished product start to move away from each other. It seems so impossible. It seems depressing. The discipline is something I am working on, but there isn’t the professional pressure to get it done. No one holds me accountable for personal writing. There isn’t going to be a talk about my career goals. I am responsible mostly to myself. So, I need to figure out the carrot and make it bigger and more compelling.
I have been thinking a lot about how, with these journal articles, the reason that I go through this somewhat painful struggle every few months, is because it is a process I believe in. I think there is something important about formalizing what we do in our academic work. This is how it gets disseminated. It is the process, and the structure of that process, that makes the article worthy and useful. It is the fact that we all use the same process to communicate our research activities to each other. We may pick different approaches, but we all agree on the goals these methods can meet. We all benefit from the use of common standards, describing our work in a way that can be critiqued, with results that can be visualized. Not to say academia is not competitive, because it is, but we all buy into the idea that we should publish so that our thoughts can be reviewed and questioned, that the conversation that results will be valuable. When we cite other literature to give context, participate in a peer-review, offer our services editing, or even help format a bibliography properly…we demonstrate our commitment to this process. We commit to it because we all want to be better understood, better heard, by those in our field. In the sciences, this is codified in the scientific method. Replicating results is part of the communication.
But when we write for ourselves we can so easily go off course. We can fear that no one else thinks there is any value in the work. We can doubt ourselves deeply. I find I consider myself a terrible writer when I am writing for myself. How can I have my name appear on an award for scholarship, have my articles cited by people I admire, and yet have such a crisis of confidence when it comes to trying to write an essay. I think it is the absence of the control. In personal writing, I let things pour out without really knowing their ingredients. Is this sweet nectar? Is it acid or alkaline? What if it is colorless, odorless, and lethal? When we tell our stories, sometimes they take up spaces that don’t fit the container we set out for them. When we dig deep inside of our hearts and let expression flow, there may not be a method, but rather a mess.
If others cannot replicate our results, (Really how could they as we are all so unique?) then how do we know if what we are experiencing is the real drug or the control? What if we suspect we just are not statistically significant as humans? These fears are completely terrorizing in personal writing and make it nearly impossible to have faith in sharing. It is an act of bravery to publish personal writing. It means so much more. It is harder and makes us much more vulnerable than publishing data. The risk comes with increased fear. But, we have all experienced that rare moment of beautiful connection. The intense relief when someone “gets” it. When we successfully communicate something personal, it doesn’t just push an academic community forward, it pushes an individual forward. By taking a step, filling that space, and asking for intimacy, we who publish the personal make our stand for relevance. We fight to renew the limited supply of empathy. Loneliness is vanquished, even if temporarily.
We have to do both. Share research to push forward learning. And, we need to share the unknown things, the things that we only know as we struggle with how to communicate them. By letting them into the light along with the things we have studied so hard, we do have the power to make the world, as we continuously remake ourselves.
This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.