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.      


  1. Thanks so much for the shout out Jesse, and like I mentioned in my own post, I was inspired to write it thanks to someone else's post on the topic of motivation. :-)

    I really enjoyed this post of yours, and the fact that your writing is fueled by your desire to make a better world. I can't think of a better reason than that!

    I have no doubt you will succeed one day in having your work published in academic journals, and if that makes you more desirable to a potential employer, I don't see any reason why that should bother you at all. :-)

    I also thought your connection between writing as a way of thinking is spot on. It is amazing the things we can learn, even if only about ourselves, while practicing the art of writing. I find I can often express myself much better in the written form than I could ever do verbally, so I can totally relate with your remarks about how your writing will give you a voice in these 'larger conversations' you seek to be a part of.

    Finally, Jesse, you should know that if there were more young people as respectful and thoughtful as you, the world would already be a better place.

  2. So is the romantic notion that writers have to write simply an excuse not to pay them for their work? :)

    I sometimes distinguish in my own mind between writers and authors. Writers are people who write. They write to think. They write to be a part of a conversation. But they don't necessarily get paid to write.

    Authors get paid to write.

    I wish you good luck in navigating the academic world. I used to be the managing editor for a scholarly journal. And I remember how insane the pressure to publish made some people. It can be hard to remember your highest ideals for writing in competitive academia.