Ok, this is my second attempt to start this post. At first I was just going to talk about blogging voices, but then I realized that what I want to talk about is bigger than just that, and so here we go. Take two.
Voice, as any writing teacher knows, makes a huge difference in the readability of a piece of writing. It's also one of the most difficult aspects of writing to teach. A writing voice is something that one develops over time, and it is the product of the interplay of the writing situation, the persona created by the writer, and the writer him- or her-self (if such a thing exists, and for my purposes today I will say that it does). In fact, it's this whole "developing over time" thing that makes this so difficult to teach because students don't tend to dedicate time to their writing - or not the kind of expansive and thoughtful time that it takes to develop a writing voice. Of course there are exceptions, but generally students focus on the mechanics of writing or they focus on controllable things like organization. Yes, those things are important, but we've all read that perfectly edited and organized essay that is still - for some reason - not an A. And as an instructor, one tries to pinpoint ways in which the student can develop his or her voice without characterizing it in those terms, because when you start talking to students about "voice" their eyes glaze over and they really don't get what you're talking about. (Just as they don't when you talk about "flow.") And so as an instructor you talk about things like word choice and the cadence of different kinds of sentence structures and experimenting with ways of articulating a point and still sounding like oneself. Sometimes some of this makes a difference. Sometimes it doesn't.
And some writers have a natural gift for developing writing voices, for making you see them behind their words. And ultimately I do think that this is something that is to some extent innate. Yes, it must be cultivated. Yes, it takes energy to develop and cultivate that innate talent. But sometimes I do think that either one has it or one doesn't.
Now, I'm going to make a radical (and arrogant) claim. I think that this is something that I have - this innate talent with developing voices of my own within my writing. Part of the reason I think that I can do this is because I've kept a journal since I was 12 and I've always been a writer. It comes naturally to me, but also I've spent a lot of time thinking about how my writing works. The reason I say this is not to be some boastful jerk, but rather to try to find a starting place for the thing that really motivates this post, which is I've been trying to think about the linkages between my blogging voice and my academic voice. I've been writing a lot about this in my diary - especially as I was finishing the article.
On the one hand, I think I've always taken my ability to make my readers "hear" me in my writing for granted. It always seemed like a gimmick or something that masked over the fact that I didn't have good ideas. In my first year of my PhD program, I got a comment on my end-of-year progress report that still haunts me: "Dr. Crazy has an engaging critical voice, but she needs to work on presenting her ideas with greater sophistication." Or something like that. At any rate, I then spent the next five years editing my unsophisticated self out of my academic prose. I performed "sophistication." And I got pretty good at it. And I was able to preserve some of my own individual voice even as I tarted it up in the trappings of sophistication. The only compliment my adviser ever gave me (and no, I'm not kidding about that) about my dissertation was that my voice really came through in the prose and that it was a pleasure to read. (As I write that, I begin to think that he was lying. What dissertation is a pleasure to read? Wow. I am really susceptible to flattery, even when it is obviously a total lie.)
You'll notice, though, that in both cases, both with the critique and with the compliment, my graduate school experience was typified by people noticing my style and not paying much attention to the substance of what I had to say. And so all through graduate school, while I worked on sounding "sophisticated" and "theoretical" and all of those things that were so revered in my Fancy Program, I felt like my actual ideas, well, like they weren't very good. Or like they were good but that somebody else could do more with them than I ever would be able to do.
And so then I enter my first tenure-track job, and I embark on some new research that is unrelated to the dissertation, and all of a sudden people are paying attention not only to the style of what I'm saying but also the substance (which just goes to show that talking about something that you know very little about can make people think that you have a fresh approach to things rather than an ill-informed one). But I still didn't feel comfortable. And it was after that first year on the tenure track, after three conference papers and feeling a little... unsure of myself in this new identity as Professor, that I began my first blog and developed this writing persona of "Dr. Crazy." The Dr. Crazy of the first blogspace was a consciously hard and irreverent voice. Part of my aim was to distinguish between that voice and my academic voice, and I think also I didn't really know what kind of voice I wanted and that's what I got stuck with. At the same time, I was trying to develop an authoritative voice as a professional and a scholar, and so the hardness in the blogspace probably also related to the fact that I was grasping for authority in other kinds of writing.
As you all know, I ultimately felt too hemmed in by that voice to continue with it, and so I reimagined it and moved my Crazy self over to this blog. But as I was working on the article last week and writing in my diary after a night of working on it and thinking about the blog in relation to journal or diary-writing and my academic writing, I think I realized that what blogging has enabled me to do is to experience the development of a writing voice in a sustained and public way. Sometimes that has been uncomfortable, but I think it also has given me confidence, not only in my writing but also in my ideas. For the first time, as I was writing that article, I wasn't worried about sounding unsophisticated or about being all style and no substance (or being responded to as if that were the case). And I was able to detach my "self" from the academic writing and to think of what I was doing there as just another persona, just as I can detach from "Dr. Crazy" as a writing persona.
In all of these voices, there are similarities; there are points of convergence. And so there's something about blogging, I think, that has been incredibly valuable to my scholarly or professional writing, even though I don't tend to write in a substantive way about my scholarly or professional work, and I don't tend to post in detail about deadlines and what I'm doing and such. In other words, the blog has not been a mechanism of accountability for me, but a space that is in-between work-writing and personal-writing. And I think that has enabled me to develop a richer voice that translates into the work writing, if that makes sense.
Ok, but enough of this navel-gazing. One of the things (aside from my ability to think about myself ad nauseam) that inspired this post was this post and this post over at Anastasia's blog. Also some posts on other blogs that I read that have cropped up in recent weeks. I think that one of the frustrations of blogging can be in feeling like the voice that one has developed for the blog no longer fits what one wants to write about, or that the voice that one has on one's blog doesn't fit in with the larger community of bloggers that one reads. It can be a frustrating and alienating experience, and it's pretty much contrary to all of the positive things that I've noted above. I went through that frustration and alienation at the hands of my blog last december. I don't know that I have any answers, but I do think that some blogs do run their course. I also think that sometimes one's frustration or alienation via blogging isn't really related only to blogging but to the frustration and alienation that is so deeply imbedded in this profession - whether as we train to become certified (or certifiable) members of it or as we work within it. I wonder whether anxieties over blog voices or blog identities or blog content constitute a legitimate way to express deeper personal anxieties about who we are as academics - anxieties that we cannot express for fear of looking stupid or for being kicked out of the club.
1 year ago