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Getting Write Down to It: Passion and Purpose in Writing

A Personal Perspective: Writing as an art form.

Key points

  • The act of writing is an art form that involves willingness to be part of a larger conversation.
  • The mandate to publish or perish in academia bears down on faculty, but there are things that can help.
  • There are benefits to considering the process of writing and how it is life-affirming and life-building.
Hannah Grace/ Unsplash
Source: Hannah Grace/ Unsplash

If we think about writing as having the privilege of entering a conversation and pushing it in the direction we think it needs to go, then writing—yes, even academic writing—becomes creative. It becomes our own art form, if you will. It gives meaning to our lives and is one of the ways that we contribute to the world.

Once we recognize that our writing is an art form, we need new ways to judge ourselves and our productivity. Should a painter’s worthiness as an artist be determined by how many pieces they landed in a juried show in the last year? When we think of an artist’s career, we see the arc of their art over time. Similarly, as academics, we write over the arc of our careers. It’s the way that we—as people involved in the front lines of knowledge production, construction, and consumption—make art.

Publishing monographs and articles in top-tier journals is a fine goal—in fact, even necessary sometimes to get or keep a job. But publishing isn’t the only reason for writing any more than juried exhibitions and winning awards are the sole reasons an artist goes to paint. The painter finds at least as much, if not much more, nourishment and fulfillment in the process of making art as in the external recognition, however validating and joyful those accolades. Indeed, dreaming of accolades is rarely why an artist sits down to paint. The painter makes art to thrive, to share the meaning they find in the world with others. So, too, if a writer recognizes their work as their art, they sit down to do it to share their gifts with other people and society in general. And the process of writing itself becomes a way to thrive, to contribute to the world.

To take our writing seriously, we must think about it as a core part of our life’s work. We often write for our peers, sometimes for our students, and sometimes for audiences outside of academia. Once we have confidence in our writing, that paves the way for more outward-facing scholarship, bolstering the possibility of becoming a public scholar.

Once we take seriously our art form—or craft, if the word sounds more apt or comfortable—we must make time for it. When we finish a research project, we must realize that good writing takes care, thought, and loving attention to words, phrasing, and paragraph construction. Knowing that it takes time, and is worth the time, can boost our confidence. Good writing brings our ideas, and our findings, to life.

With all of the competing demands that students, colleagues, and our increasingly bureaucratic administrations in higher education impose on us, writing can be something we can claim as our own. While our course material is housed in learning management systems with accompanying questions of control over our intellectual property, and committee work is in service to the institution, the writing we do is ours. And the time we claim for it—for cultivating and honing it—is time we’ve declared, if only to ourselves, as precious and sacred, reserved to nurture ourselves and our ability to contribute to those around us. There’s something very liberating about that.

In sum, while many faculty members see the “publish or perish” message as exemplifying the competitive pressure of an academic career, making the time to enjoy the process of writing is an antidote to some of what has become the drudgery of university life. It reminds us what turns us on in our fields of study and motivates our inquiry in the first place.

A version of this post also appeared in Inside Higher Ed with Barbara Risman.

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