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Softening boundaries: Entering Academic Writing through Creative Writing

By Kumud Bhansali

In this article I reflect on my experience of organising academic writing workshops for MA and MPhil students from the department of Sociology at South Asian University, where I am enrolled as a PhD Candidate. The workshop I am drawing upon was conducted in February 2017 with the intention to facilitate a process to get students to identify their academic writing challenges and gather resources – internal, interpersonal, and institutional – to inform their writing practice. The day-long workshop covered a range of topics, including discussing practices of journaling and freewriting, reverse outlining, and revising and rewriting. For this essay, I draw only on the series of activities undertaken in the first session. Even though most of the discussion was primarily in the context of ethnographic writing, I suggest that some of the ideas illustrated here could travel to academic writing across disciplines.

How we approach the act of writing could hold some answers to why academic writing suffers from a certain degree of ennui. Perhaps, to be attributed to, if not blamed, on how we have been trained or not trained as far as writing is concerned. Academic writing till recently was mostly viewed as a task that didn’t require training. The somewhat fallacious belief that writing begins once all the reading and thinking has been done complicates matters even more: in the linear scheme of things reading and thinking precedes writing. However, any form of analytical writing would require a more recursive approach. The aim of this workshop was to discuss among ourselves this non-linearity, and to encourage students to look at writing as a heuristic process, and most importantly, be able to create and use specific tools to inform one’s writing practice.

With the awareness that several students in the department were interested in creative writing, the questions – how is academic writing inherently different from other forms of writing? And how can creative writing inform our engagement with academic writing? – were the fulcrum on which the workshop rested. In doing this, the intention was also to invite students to think of writing as a process as against a product, to encourage them to think through writing, where the practice of writing is anchored in revision and rewriting, and are not merely to be applied hastily before we hit the submit button at the last hour.

The workshop started with freewriting, where I asked student-participants to free write to – ‘My writing is…’ or the more specific one ‘What makes me most anxious about my writing?’ This was a warm-up exercise for the group to settle in and start writing (freely) instead of speaking about their challenges. Further, participants were invited to read out portions they felt comfortable sharing with the group. Reading aloud their challenges made them realise how almost everyone fought procrastination, lack of motivation, perfectionism among other difficulties.

We read excerpts from Peter Elbow’s (1973) article on freewriting where he urges his readers to “forget spelling and grammar” as they freewrite. Elbow also suggests that we don’t pause to edit our stream of consciousness, that we do not intrude the flow of our ideas through “… a massive and complicated series of editings between the time the words start to be born into consciousness and when they finally come of the end of the pencil or typewriter onto the page…”. As a group we agreed to apply Elbow’s suggestions while attempting to articulate our writing voice. With this agreement we then read an excerpt from a chapter in Christopher Poulous’ book, Accidental Ethnography (2009). Here, Poulous takes us through an entire day of putting away writing in favor of doing mundane chores. The overwhelming urge to not write even as deadlines loom brought to the fore how even those who have been in academe for a long time struggle with writing and may put it away until it was impossible to do so. We all related to this and were fairly surprised that others also faced similar challenges. This illustrates effectively how procrastination is most often fettered by assumptions about first drafts. Elbow (1973) challenges these unrealistic assumptions about first drafts in his essay on freewriting by emphasising that the precondition for writing well is to be able to write badly and to write even when you are not in the mood.

The discussion led to participants to write not only about how their writing is, but also how they felt it ought to be. Some also reflected on the stuck-ness they felt when it comes to writing within the academic context while creative forms such as poetry and fiction did not bring about such inertia. As one participant said,

We are also sometimes afraid to write because it clearly lays out what we don’t know. This is especially so, when we do academic writing. When we are writing our papers/thesis, we feel we must know everything. [ ] Nothing seems to be that awesome or ground-breaking a theory. Having to write is also to have to confront our fears of what we don’t know… [ ] This might be one of the many reasons why we put it off.

Without any immediate pressure and benchmarks to live up to, poetry and fiction were seen as pleasant digression, a way to express one’s subjectivity. Whereas writing for academic purpose was considered as something that will be immediately put to immense scrutiny and which needed to sound impressive for it to be taken seriously. We judge ourselves harshly in the giant shadows of the texts we read and that we compare our first drafts to final outcomes of writers whose finest work we are engaging with. While we agreed that these imperatives made academic writing harder than it is supposed to be, it was more important to first free oneself from these requirements of writing to just write as the starting step. Lastly, we also discussed that creative writing is not free of such impediments and what is unknown to us may be encumbered by the compulsion of its own field.

Procrastination is often depicted as a demon that needs exorcising. However, I suggest that we remain patient to what may look like a never-ending, unyielding loop of recurring deferment. There is value in viewing procrastination as our resistance trying to communicate to us, an opportunity through which we can get to the heart of our struggles, and from where can emerge insights to guide us towards gentler ways of calibrating our inner clock vis-à-vis the binding compulsions of the external rhythms. We also need to remember that the constraints of these tunes come into play irrespective of whether the writing we engage in is academic or creative. By allowing (creative) work to go through a period of gestation, we nurture it and make space for the revelation to happen.

In the next session we reflected upon how creative writing can inform academic writing and how the former can emerge in the context of latter. We started our discussion on Renato Rosaldo’s ‘Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage’ (1984) juxtaposing it with poems from Rosaldo’s 2014 text – “The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief”.[1] In the discussion participants highlighted how the language of academe speaks about the ethnographer and the natives as “positioned subjects”, while in the writing of poems Rosaldo freely uses names and perspectives unfettered by formal academic language and conventions.

Through Rosaldo’s ‘anthropoetry – poetry informed by ethnographic sensibility’, we examined his use of craft elements such as applying the five senses, showing versus telling, and how rendering concrete, specific details makes the reader care deeply for the text. That creative writing gives us more freedom to express our personal and personalized truths which then brought us to how these elements can inform the craft of academic writing as well, which is a way of representing truths, no matter how partial, we have experienced during the course of our research.

For example, in the poem ‘Manny’ – written from the perspective of their 15-month-old son Manny, Rosaldo paints a vivid picture of a toddler who “turns his head side to side” searching for what cannot be found; here Rosaldo ends the poem with “My blanket /with the smooth part /gone.” We all concurred that “my blanket with the smooth part” is a metaphor for Shelly, Manny’s mother.

Discussion ensued on how these two kinds of writings can give insights into writing as a process. We speculated that what became an essay and an anthology of poems had its source in the field-notes and observations that Rosaldo must have made while in the field as events were unfolding, and that there are no events small or big while doing fieldwork. We wondered if field notes therefore with their amorphous quality hold the shape-shifting possibility to become so many things. We spoke about the various ways in which one can write on the same topic or writing from the point of view of the various others in the field, the approach that Rosaldo takes in the anthology where poems are written from several perspectives – from the points of view of – his sons, Father Joe – the Catholic priest, the driver, the cliff from where Shelly fell. However, to write from the perspective of others in the context of academic writing also requires deep awareness, empathy, and entails immense responsibility on the part of the researcher. To choose to anchor oneself into the experiences of the interlocutor(s) and represent their voice calls for great deal of self-reflexivity. Here the authorial voice is guided by an ethical academic research framework, something that may or may not bind the creative writer.

In the next exercise I read out a few writing prompts to the group, and asked them to write to what invoked strong memories.

One such prompt was taken from Accidental Ethnography

Spend some time reminiscing about your childhood. Remember as much as you can from as early in your life as you can. Try to remember a compelling story of an important moment in your childhood.

Here, the group was asked to provide specific details of the moment as opposed to general information, to give concrete sensorial details of the setting being presented – the smells, textures, sounds, and sights; and to show us (rather than tell) the worlds they were trying to write about. Thus, to write in such a way that the writing itself becomes the reader/listener’s portal into that memory. Students were then invited to freewrite keeping these suggestions in mind. We read aloud what the participants had written and,​ as part of feedback, phrases and expressions that stayed with the listeners were reiterated to the writer.

Childhood memories brought up different things for participants –

…hours getting sun kissed sitting on the front attic while mother took me on her lap… with Rabindra Sangeet playing…

…the river that is patron to the snake that wades across while dull sounds of drones hovered the air. Distinct smell of rice from the paddy fields and a path zigzagged with dragonflies…

Some professed forgetfulness –

I have a bad memory, looking for the last best moments in all the best moments why I am not recalling the past? May be I am thinking it’s too personal or is a secret…

I almost forgot that house as if it was news, mud house with moist smooth mud, shade from a drumstick tree…why I forgot about it…why is it lost from memory?

Later a participant observed –

Free writing makes you translate your thoughts into words, without any filtration. As the process stresses on the importance of ‘just write’, the hesitation that usually comes along with writing is attended to. The process also rests on the belief that maintaining a routine of writing is extremely useful, even if the activity takes no more than a few minutes a day.

Participants noticed that if we are invested in a memory, the invocation of sensorial elements come more easily. Through free and stream of consciousness writing, one can be led to more ideas, more memories, and layers within ourselves. At times even things one may have not documented could emerge to grab our attention. Sometimes a freewrite may be quite ready to be fleshed out into a more refined piece of writing. Freewriting however was not unfettered by doubts. Some participants questioned if freewriting was really “free.” And what if freewriting doesn’t come to us, the futility of not being able to recall the past?

I do recognise that perhaps I am more sanguine about the efficacy of freewriting. Not everyone would be as convinced or be willing to subscribe to it. And moreover, it may not be useful in all cases. However, I do suggest that freewriting does open us to serendipities, and cultivates in us the willingness to be surprised by our writing (and research) as we stumble upon hitherto uncharted inner landscapes. And this could hold some answers to why freewriting is at least worth attempting.

While bringing this session to a close, participants discussed how freewriting could be a way to produce some sort of text to begin with, form ideas, and organize field notes. By the end of this section, we brainstormed on how one could begin a practice of daily writing and some of the ideas that came forth were –

  1. Maintain a dream journal.
  2. Summarise your day in one line – daily, and review it at the end of a week or ten days.
  3. Carry a small notebook wherever you go. Write what you feel, see, touch, taste, smell, hear, and intuit.
  4. Make a note of conversations overheard, expressions that refuse to leave.
  5. Time-focused free writing – could be freewriting in general or freewriting to a specific event in the field.

In this article, I set on the idea that experiences and memories can be anchored into and harnessed for the purposes of any kind of writing in general and, in this context academic writing in particular. The use of craft elements from creative writing can create a space fecund with potential not only for imaginative writing but also to inform creative ways of doing fieldwork. Furthermore, by creating an artificial schism between creative and academic writing, we over-identify one with only rigour and drudgery and the other with nothing but only spurts of inspiration. Whereas writing for both the purposes are sparked by both diligence as well as flashes of creativity, and that creative writing just as academic writing also goes through several versions of rewriting and rethinking.

Academic writing is a form of writing with its specific vocabulary and grammar, meant for audience who are participants in conversations that have been going on for a long period of time. The aim is to eventually participate in the discourse, but we also have to remind ourselves that we write first and edit later as far as the written word goes. While the pressure to publish and produce meaningful work in academia is undeniable, this must not stifle the joy of writing. I suggest that we approach our writing as a way of discovering the relationship we form with our experiences within the fields and spheres we inhabit. These experiences render meaning and layers to our writing selves. As one emphasises on the importance of writing, it is important that we take away from it all the burden of seriousness and formal-ness that tends to get attached to it, and instead, suffuse it with the joy that any work of creativity deserves.

[1] American anthropologists Renato and Michelle (Shelly) Rosaldo arrived with their sons Sam and Manny in the northern Philippine village of Mungayang in October 1981. Within a day of their arrival, Shelly died after losing her balance from the cliff and fell into the river. Through his 1984 essay “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” Renato Rosaldo explored the relationship between bereavement and rage, and much later, in 2014, published an anthology of poems – The Day of Shelly’s Death, based on the events of that day, written from multiple perspectives of the various people Rosaldo met during that time.

Picture-credit: Kaushalya Kumarasinghe

Kumud Bhansali
is PhD Candidate at South Asian University. Her doctoral research is on first generation entrepreneurs. With an eye on writing pedagogy, Kumud looks for creative ways of engaging with academic writing. She has conducted academic writing workshops for MA and MPhil students.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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