Academia and creativity

Thanks to everyone who left references re: eating disorders. My housemate and I got hold of “Holy Feast, Holy Fast” and “Holy Anorexia”, one each, but sadly we can only get them out of short loan for a week at a time. So my education on the subject of medieval eating disorders will have to be sporadic and tucked in around what I’m actually *supposed* to be doing.

Now here’s a question: does anyone else find that academic work chews up your capacity for other sorts of creative work?

Knowing people like Adrienne J. Odasso, who managed to combine work on an absolutely terrifying-sounding PHD and build up a career as a poet (while I’m spruiking AJO, you could do worse than to read her latest poem published online, Saints Lives at Divine Dirt Quarterly), or the Sydney-based semiotician Nick Riemer, who’s also a poet in his spare time, clearly it is and ought to be possible to be academically productive and creatively.

One of the few things that I regret about coming back to uni, though, is that for me, creative writing and academic work seem to be an either/or. I wrote a lot during high school and first year uni: prose fiction (of age-appropriate dubiousness) and then I hit my stride with poetry in the last year of school.

Thing is: I only seem to be able to write in one format at a time. Midway through second year, something clicked with my essay-writing. I think it was when I had my first senior-level essay (over 3000 words) due, the first paper which really required I think Original Thoughts and present them convincingly. Academic writing has always been a lot tougher than fiction or poetry, more likely to make me want to throw it all in and go off and become an undertaker. But then, I’m in academia for other reasons besides the fun of writing, and I can’t just leave it if it’s no fun, as I might with fiction or poetry. And when it works, there’s the same giddy feeling, the everything-in-the-right-place-and-i-am-just-AWESOME sensation.

But the more academic writing I do, the less likely I am to write anything else (except blogs. Maybe even blogs – observe how this blog died a terrible death in the tail end of honours). I accepted that years ago, traded in my probably-unrealistic and certainly poorly-paid ambition of becoming An Author in for the equally poorly-paid and difficult to achieve ambition of becoming A Medievalist. It feels like betraying my sixteen-year-old self, but them’s the breaks.

Last year, while I was off working for the public circus, two important things happened:

Firstly, I started writing again. Slowly, and very badly at first. Poetry doesn’t just tumble off the pen anymore, nor fiction; and at first I was faced with the dismal realisation that I was a better poet at sixteen than twenty-one. But four years of essay writing did me some good: my writing’s more controlled now, and I can turn a critical eye back on myself and know what I said and how I wanted to say it, which helps with the editing process. Slowly, with practice and time to read other poets, and with no essays or thesis demanding my brain time, I started writing things I’m quite proud of.

I liked that. I’m aware that flinging myself back into academia will be a huge cramp on creative writing: I just don’t have the energy to work consistently on two kinds of writing at once. I can deal with it: being An Author or A Poet would make me happy, but not being an academic made me miserable. So there’s that decision made. But it’s a sad one, all the same.

The second thing was much happier. I participated in an LJ-based writing challenge called WriSoMiFu (write something, you miserable fuck), in which, rather than trying to meet the 50-000 word NaNoWriMo standard, you merely had to write for ten minutes a day, every day, on anything. In one check-in post, some person with motivational intent told us to think about the things you like to read; the things you read that make you excited; the things that make you want to talk about them, read more, and make you want to write.

Cleverclogs me had a lightbulb moment. Fiction is fun, sometimes, but I no longer devour it insatiably. I don’t see new fiction books and think WANT, NOW so often; I don’t pick up random novels for their humourous title or tangential relation to something else I read. On the other hand, I can’t open any academic journal without picking up something weird that I absolutely must read; I steal my housemates’ textbooks; I have a to-read pile on my bookshelf of academic articles on subjects ranging from Chretien de Troyes to the genetic basis of BMI, via same-sex domestic violence and fan studies. While I was in Canberra, I bought a fair bit of fiction, but far more non-fiction, both academic and otherwise.

If, as advised, I were to write the things I’d really want to read, those things would be lengthy and dense and have far too many footnotes. The audience for such things isn’t exactly huge, but I should certainly know by now that there are some academic books which are a delight to read. And some which, useful as they are, are really terrible on the reader. There’s skill and artistry in that, in making a critical book readable.

So that’s one of the challenges facing me: to try to keep up the “creative writing”, because I like it, and I use it to say very different things about myself. But at the same time, I have to remember that academic writing is creative, in its own way; and that the reason one often loses out to the other is that they’re far more closely related than I think.

And for the good of my sanity, I’m trying to find creative things to do which aren’t word-based. Things I’m actually not all that good at, and which no one will ever mark me on: baking (except my housemates continue to mark me on that, on a scale of delicious to disastrous), knitting, attempting to grow tomato plants.

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3 Responses to “Academia and creativity”

  1. april Says:

    I haven’t written anything since high school. I was quite good, for my age. I was often told by teachers that my work was uni-standard. But now I am relatively far in uni, I don’t think I’d keep up with those who are good at multitasking. Since M. Phil is short, you may have to reconcile yourself to being less write-y. But if you decide to do a PhD, you’ll probably have some down time near the start. You can write then.
    It does suck to give up your young-self dreams. I am still cut up about not going to NIDA, since my CP will realistically only get me “Disabled woman #2” roles. But you might find you get tenure somewhere. I like to keep Piers Mitchell in mind to. He’s a practicing othopaedic surgeon, I think, and does his academic stuff in his downtime. Good academic stuff, too. He gets the medieval period.
    You don’t have to actually be an academic to get published or have a good academic reputation. You’ll always have that, if everything else goes to shit.

  2. kishnevi Says:

    Have you considered historical fiction or non-fiction aimed at the general reading public (think Barbara Tuchman or William Manchester or Nathaniel Philbrick–I assume there are Aussie equivalents, but haven’t a clue as to whom they could be). In the other direction, Colleen McCullough seems to have an academic level of knowledge about Rome–or at least enough to provide the sinews of a very good series of historical fiction. (I’m assuming that you, like any intelligent person, has read her Roman history series.) And there seem to be plenty of contemporary authors who get their facts on straight when they write historical fiction.

    That way you can meld your academic interests with your creative impulse.

    Of course, that won’t do much for your poetry. But maybe you can persuade Penguin that an entirely new translation of Chretien is needed.


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