Academic writing – hiking or building?

For me, academic writing is a creative activity.

I know it’s not that way for everyone – my partner, an ecologist, never felt that his writing was a creative activity. For him, creativity occurred mainly during the design phase of his research, and when he needed to solve problems. Writing was a fairly dry reporting process for him, and he’d just sit at his computer for 8 hours a day and tap his article/thesis/report out. For him, writing was hiking. He had a route planned out, was prepared for the trip, had all he needed in his pack, and just had to walk the path. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult at times – most hiking routes have difficult patches, sometimes a lot of them, and it requires a lot of preparation, dedication and stamina. But he was following a path, not making a new one – once he picked a route, he knew where he was going and how.*

My experience was/is different. For me, writing is a creative activity, a thinking activity. Of the insights I arrived at and the connections I made in my work, a good proportion of them came about as I wrote. It also couldn’t be forced – if I didn’t have some kind of inspiration, some kind of creative spark, all I could do was tinker at the edges of what I already had. I couldn’t do anything new.

Rather than hiking, it felt as though I was building something off concept plans. I had a vague idea about the kind of thing I was hoping to build, but I didn’t have clear specs or measurements. I built walls only to discover they weren’t square, or wouldn’t connect, or that I just didn’t like them there, so I knocked them down and started again. Some of my original ideas just didn’t, couldn’t be made to work and had to be scrapped altogether. In fact, the floor plan changed quite a bit, and new foundations had to be added – but there was no way of knowing when I drafted the plans that I’d want to, or need to, build over there. And some things just came together in unexpected and pleasantly surprising ways. Some of my plans didn’t just work, they managed to be beautiful, too.

And, like building work, it was a mix of hard labour and creativity. Some days were tremendously productive, other days very little got done – I didn’t have the creative spark needed to move forward. And some days it rained, so not only could I not get anything done, I had to spend the next few days mopping up.**

At times I envied my partner’s writing experiences; he knew he’d get it done if he just kept going, and he moved forward every day. Me? There were times when I wasn’t sure the house would get up, or would stay up, and I didn’t know where the next creative burst of inspiration would come from. Or when it would come. Or if.

Now, I have my building. There are things I might have done differently, but there was really no way to know that when I started, so I’m kind of okay with it. I’m cautiously proud of it…but really, I’m still waiting to see how it holds up in a storm. Hopefully the roof doesn’t leak too badly. Hopefully the doors don’t jam. Hopefully it harnesses the views I planned it to. Hopefully it catches the breeze. Hopefully it’s genuinely something new.  I’m waiting to see.

_ _

This is all a really roundabout way to say that I need to be writing journal articles right now and I am tapped out. The creative spark hasn’t quite come back yet, and I’m not sure when it’s coming. I still have bruises and aches from the last build.

I kind of wish I could just go hiking.

_ _

*I don’t mean to suggest that his research wasn’t innovative – it was. Amazingly so, in fact. But his writing followed the typical science/ecology dissertation structure, and his articles follow the established formula.

**Can you tell I’ve been watching Grand Designs? Ahem.

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