Thursday, January 10, 2013

On motivations for writing

So I read this really good post about writing this morning (Great work, Donna!), and it reminded me of a conversation I had recently about how writing in grad school is different from writing in undergrad.

Melville certainly didn't want to write for nothing! 
In her post, Donna asks the very important question, "Do most writers write just for the sake of writing?" There's certainly a narrative of the artist as a creature of passion and a construction of art being divorced from profit which makes it easy for non-artists to spin tales explaining that artists like writers simply practice their craft for the craft's own sake and neither expect nor desire monetary compensation for their work (if the craft is even considered "work" in these tales). But this romanticization (if that's indeed the best word) misses the point that artists -- writers included -- are not independent of material existence. One has to ask, whose interests are being served by positing that writers don't really need compensation for their work because they are somehow above that, because, you know, art is corrupted by money?

I think that's an important conversation to have, and I think Donna offers a poignant address to that conversation.

When I think about how this conversation and especially Donna's original question apply to me as a writer, I find myself confronted with what seems to me a tension between motivations for writing.

First, I write because it is for me a method for thinking. I think when I write, and I find that many times I learn about new ways of thinking about topics as I write about them. This is one of my favorite experiences and favorite aspects of being a student: the moment in the writing of an essay when in the middle of a sentence you finally understand how to put into words an intuition that has been guiding your writing or you make a connection between ideas you didn't think of beforehand.

I also write because I want to be part of larger conversations. While I do learn through writing, and while I do get some kind of personal pleasure out of writing, I also ultimately want to have an audience beyond myself for my writing. I want to be a voice involved in important conversations about political and social topics about which I care deeply. I want to have something relevant and carefully researched and thought out to contribute in a meaningful and efficacious way. This was one of my biggest motivations for deciding to pursue a PhD instead of a teaching degree. This is also what motivates me to want to write not just for academic publications one day, but also for other mediums as well (note: this does not mean that I in any way believe there is anything wrong with academic publications -- it simply a personal desire of my own). And this is the first big difference between writing in undergrad and writing as a grad student that I've found: Usually, when you write a paper as an undergrad, you are writing for yourself and your professor who is grading you, period. When you write as a grad student, you are writing with an eye towards an audience beyond the folks that have taken and taught courses you've taken. You are often writing with an eye towards publication for slightly larger audiences. (Or at least that's how my professors are teaching me at the moment and that is how I am writing).

And then there is another difference between undergrad and graduate writing, and this, I think, is where Donna's post pushed me to rethink these questions. I want to be a part of larger conversations because I want to do my part to shape political, social, and material conditions to do whatever little bit I can to shape a better world, on whatever scale possible. And in the career path I have chosen, this means at least writing for publication in academic journals/collections (someday -- fingers crossed!). But this goal of publication also has another dimension to it. Not only does it offer a possible way of thinking and thus affecting the political/social/material, but it is also a path towards becoming more employable. When it comes down to it, even though I have plenty of motivations for my current career path which are beyond my self, when I write with an eye for publication I cannot pretend that it is only because I want to have a voice in these "larger conversations" -- I also want to give myself the best chance I can to get a job!

This is quite a balancing act. When I write, I write for the act itself. I write because writing is a rewarding activity on its own. I also write because I see it as one method of performing a kind of public service for the larger communities of which I am a part. But I also write because I want to make my CV as strong as possible for when I'm on the job market in five years. I'm not sure if it bothers me, and if it does, I don't know why it would, but I am definitely conscious of the ways in which my motivations to have my writing published provide a tension between self-interest and community-interest.

I'm not sure what that means right now, but there it is.      

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year!

Well 2012 is over and we're in a new year (a year which has has four sequential numbers as its digits! 0, 1, 2, and 3!). In the weeks leading up to the end of 2012 I saw a whole bunch of lists and whatnot everywhere from CNN to Sportscenter looking back at the past year. Hell, Facebook even told me what my top 20 moments were for the year (they probably tried to tell you yours too!).

I didn't really stop to reflect on my own year until after the ball dropped and friends went back home after gathering to celebrate. But thinking about it, 2012 was a really great year in my life, personally.

I started the year with the most functional "family vacation" I've ever been on to celebrate my girlfriend's birthday, and I got to pet a freakin' dolphin as a bonus! Then at the end of February came a single week of awesome which included getting accepted into Cornell, learning I would be getting a SUNY Chancellor's Award, attending a Sigma Tau Delta (yup, the English honors society's abbreviation is STD...) conference where my essay was recognized as best in its category ($!), and spending a wonderful time with wonderful people in New Orleans (though a friend and I might have gotten lost trying to find the Backstreet Cultural Museum...). And then after that week I could wrap up my career at Geneseo by just reveling in a place where I had found home with folks I had found to be family. After graduation came a last-minute decision to embark on a road trip from Long Island to Texas with some friends ("The best trip ever!"), and then I got to begin my graduate studies at Cornell University. Keeping things to one paragraph, all in all 2012 was a great ride! I am extremely humbled by my luck and grateful for all of my sources of support in my life, and thankful to  everyone who helped make this such a great year for me on a personal level.

My aunt and uncle lost their house in Breezy Point during Sandy.
And at the same time, I remember some of the not-so-great things about 2012, including our gridlocked politics in the U.S., violence around the world in places like Syria, the sixteen mass shootings in our own country, and natural disasters such as earthquakes in the Middle East and Phillipines and Hurricane Sandy. I remember that for many people, 2012 held its share of tragedies, or at least was not necessarily the best year of their lives. 

But I also remember Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk, which has been more influential on me than I can express, on "The Danger of the Single Story," and I stop myself before thinking that for some people 2012 was nothing but a tragic year, as if human experience can be squished into a single dimension. That is not to diminish the terrible events of 2012, but to simply recognize that while individuals cannot escape their contexts and environments, they are not defined by these things.

And so I'm now thinking about what it means to celebrate New Year's Eve/Day. We perform this new beginning, and yet there is no cleaning of the slate, no reset button which sets up a brand new year -- just the continuation of moments. So the performance of it all seems a little empty, doesn't it? 

As someone who is admittedly suspicious of celebrations of holidays, I do think celebrating New Year's is a valuable and meaningful performance. No, we don't get to wipe the slate clean and start over as if the new is separate from the old, but we can for just a moment resolve to work towards beginning anew, even as we must continue to live with the same responsibilities we had the previous calendar year. We can begin again as if for the first time, while at the same time we remain grounded in the inescapable continuum from past to future which we call the present. We can, for a moment, embody contradiction.

And I think that in that moment of contradiction, in that moment in which we can simultaneously start over again and keep on swimming the same stream of time we can find our potential to negotiate another embodied contradiction. While our individual lives may seem small in comparison to the world at large and yet infinitely important to our own emotional well-being, we can assert our miniscule individuality as a mechanism for affecting our environments at large. We can embody the contradiction of the smallness and the profundity of individuality, and that is humbling.

So here's to a new year that's both brand new and just a continuation of the very old. There's nothing new under the sun, but each day is itself a different day. At least I think so.