As a storyteller, I see stories everywhere. We all do this to some extent. In fact, we only ‘exist’ in the context of our stories: who we are, how we came to be here, where we’re going and why. We ‘story’ our existence because we want to understand how things fit and what will happen.
Stories aren’t a random series of events, though; they have a pattern. Typically, a hero ventures out into the unknown, faces challenges and defeats, and invariably has to let go of a false belief or flawed thinking in order to learn something new. Even following a cake recipe is a story of sorts: you want to achieve something, you begin, you carry out challenging steps, then you entrust the cake mixture to the oven, hoping the result will satisfy your guests. Even if the recipe doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll learn something.
The principles of storytelling can be applied to academic writing, too. When students are struggling to shape their research into a dissertation or thesis, I ask them the same sort of questions I’d ask a creative-writing student about their novel:
• What was the status quo before you began?
• What are you trying to achieve? What problem are you trying to overcome?
• Why is this important? What are the stakes?
• What do people believe? Does this need to change?
• How are you going to get to where you want to go?
• What are the difficulties?
• Does your journey have a high point? A low point?
• What have you found? What do you think you’ll find?
• What’s the significance of your findings?
• How will they change things? What will happen now?
Finding the narrative of your research can help you write a powerful abstract, case study, press release or funding application. It will make the story of your research more compelling. Being able to tell this story in a few sentences can also be helpful when you’re networking at conferences or trying to explain what you do to people outside your area of expertise.
Nothing is more paralysing than speaking to people who know more than you do about the very thing you’re speaking about. Students sometimes write badly for a related reason. They write with defensive terror, knowing the person reading the essay is their tutor: the expert. It’s the person who will literally judge them! Liberate yourself by imagining your essay is a talk to a group of sympathetic peers or perhaps to colleagues from different fields from your own. These are people who want to hear from you, who want to be convinced by you, who want to walk away from your essay knowing something they never knew before, and thinking something they had never thought. Then you will relax and lose that fear of your audience.
29 November 2017
I think of obstacles as friends in the process of writing.
I have often found that when I’ve stumbled upon a problem when writing a play, that very obstacle has turned out to be a gift. In finding the solution, I’ve pushed the play into directions and dimensions I hadn’t thought of when I first had the idea, allowing it to achieve its greatest potential, and giving me a key to unlock my own deeper motivations for writing the piece. Here’s just one example.
Years ago, I was writing a radio play about the relationship between a young woman who had recently been paralysed and a capuchin monkey being trained to be her aide and companion. How do you give a voice to a monkey, a voice that isn’t Disney, and isn’t simplistically anthropomorphic? By chance, I discovered that the capuchin monkeys being trained in this way come from a part of the Amazon rainforest where a people called the Bororos live. The Bororos believe that monkeys are human children who died in childhood and were born again as monkeys, so I used the mythology of the Bororos to find a child/monkey voice for the character of Jacu. Along the way, the play took off in several unplanned directions, and became much more layered, exploring how we connect with nature, with animals, and with our mothers, and how missionaries sometimes colluded with the persecution of the Bororos by prospectors and developers.
In my work as an RLF Consultant Fellow, I’ve shared this idea about obstacles with students and academics, and they have almost always been able to run with it. One senior lecturer in Pharmacology wanted to argue the case for giving pharmacologists a more active role with patients in these days of acute stress within the NHS, but kept tripping over memories of her father’s work as an old-style pharmacist. To her, such personal recollections seemed out of place in an academic study. I suggested that she could embrace the apparent obstacle and write her paper partly as a memoir, to include vignettes from her childhood. Thus she could foreground the central role a pharmacist once held in communities in Britain, as a powerful contrast to the current situation.
The effect was immediate: her writing became much more compelling — as if it had been set free. Afterwards, she said of the process: ‘I found a narrative voice I didn’t know I had, and changed my research question very radically as a result.’ For her, as for me, the obstacle had been a gift, and it had given her a more personal connection to the work — with no loss of academic rigour.
As Anna Barker has so eloquently pointed out (Finding your voice, November 2016), an author’s voice is their most important attribute, although this doesn’t mean it should be constantly in the reader’s ear. It’s there, though. Just as habitual listeners are unlikely to mistake Rachmaninov for Mozart, so habitual readers will immediately recognise, for example, Jane Austen, James Joyce or Martin Amis. When I write a newspaper column, I want readers to know it’s me without looking at my byline. Without voice, authors might as well be robots.
Academic writing is, of course, different. It’s vital to find your own voice, but for doctoral theses and journal articles, that voice must be tempered by academic conventions. Postgraduates find this a challenge. During immersive writing sessions at the University of Glasgow, my co-facilitator and I asked doctoral students to describe their feelings about academic tone. ‘Prison’ was a favourite description. For staff and postgraduates at the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design Innovation, tone was also a daunting hurdle. Their work involves living people and living landscapes. Academic tone seemed to drain all the life away.
Historical novelists face the same problem. Dialogue written in the style of the novel’s era is a real life-drainer. ‘Zounds, sirrah, prithee hie for the apothecary’ is Blackadder territory. Serious authors must discover how to evoke the period without strangling their story. Hilary Mantel is an excellent tutor. ‘Cromwell has the skin of a lily,’ she has the king say near the start of Bring Up the Bodies, ‘the only particular in which he resembles that or any other blossom.’ The tone is not 21st century: we might say ‘skin like a lily’ or ‘lily-like skin’; ‘the only particular’ would be ‘the only way’; ‘flower’ is now preferred to ‘blossom’. Nevertheless, we get the joke. Far from tone being a constraint, in Mantel’s hands, it’s fuel.
A historical novelist myself, I particularly empathise with students struggling with tone. One successful strategy for both novelist and student is to be punctilious with punctuation. Inserting every comma, every full stop, every semi-colon and colon, injects formality. Another is to study in detail the tonal technique of authors you admire – words, phrases, sentence and paragraph structure – until you understand how tone actually works. It takes time but not one second is wasted.
As for robot authors, they are already with us. Many media outlets now use software to write data-heavy stories. Some predict that a machine will one day win a Pulitzer Prize. On that day, forget voice and tone. Unless they’ve got shares in the software, the only sound will be human authors shrieking.
A rough-looking man took us to the caravan, leading a frisky horse and surrounded by barking dogs. His eyes were muted with mistrust. It had taken an education liaison worker several weeks to gain the Travellers’ trust and negotiate our meeting. Once inside the spacious, spotless interior of the caravan, I was mesmerised by cabinets full of Royal Crown Derby bone china, hand-finished in 22-carat gold. I learned later that this china is highly prized by Traveller women and displayed as a sign of wealth.
My job was to write a script for a film that would persuade the Traveller community to send more of their children to secondary school, my task that day to listen: to imagine myself in the shoes of parents who fear that their children will be victimised, vilified and bullied; their daughters corrupted and their sons led astray.
Empathy is crucial to the type of writing I do. I help people to communicate – online, in film, in print, in person – by balancing the story they want to tell with the interests and concerns of their audience. Our film would only convince Traveller parents of the value of school education if the content, style and structure of my script addressed their feelings and anxieties. As writers, though we often have an equally clear story to tell – about our research, for example – it’s easy to forget that readers’ own knowledge, perspective and expectations are not the same as ours, which can prevent them from hearing our message.
When I work with students and staff in universities, I challenge them to imagine all their various readers, to define what is most important to each and guess how long an individual will spend reading what they write. I encourage academics to put themselves in the shoes of an overloaded reader on a rainy Monday morning and to write in a way that connects strongly to their audience’s interests. Empathy helps us to understand and engage our readers; it breaks down barriers and allows them to hear what we have to say. Identify what drives your audience, speak to it — and you will have your readers in the palm of your hand.
When I began my writing career, I devoured the novels of authors I admired and read creative writing self-help books cover to cover. I wrote plot outlines on huge sheets of brown paper and stuck them on my wall; I played around with character sketches until I had what I thought was an interesting cast. But one area of my writing development had me stumped. I had no voice. My words were flat, pedestrian; there was nothing in my work that jumped off the page and sizzled in the air. I wanted the magic the writers I admired had in abundance. When I read what I had written, I sounded like a terrible parody of a writer. Where was my voice?
I went down many a dark alley in my writing looking for it. In the end it came from writing about something very personal, something only I could write about. I chose a subject filled with pain and grief, which tore at my guts as I wrote it. And there it was, like a whale coming up for air. The words jumped off the page.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines voice as ‘the distinctive tone or style of a literary work or author.’ That’s certainly a good starting point, but it seems rather nebulous. Often, voice comes from originality and having the courage to express it, from being less tentative and timid and more confident and forthright. When I read academic writing that lacks a voice I immediately look for the location of the writer’s ideas. Are they at the end of a long train of dutiful acknowledgements of more established ideas? Does the writer position front and centre what is unique about their perspective, for example — at the beginning of paragraphs, sections or chapters? If not, the writer hasn’t yet found their voice.
This is unsurprising. Students tend to describe themselves as researchers, not writers. But to thrive in their careers, especially if they stay in academia, they will benefit from developing a distinctive and compelling voice – something I stressed when co-facilitating a thesis-writing immersive course for postgraduate students at Teesside University earlier this year.
As I sit down to plan my third novel I’m already thinking not just about the characters’ voices and what problems I might set for them, but also how I can feed my own voice. I’m reminding myself about what allows my voice to infuse my writing: dialogue, nature, process, sexuality — and courage.
So much of a writer’s work happens off the page that it is sometimes difficult when teaching ‘craft’ or writing technique to convey the importance of the work that takes place before you put fingers to keyboard. Off-stage is a vast territory of motivations and ambitions, impulses and imaginings, to say nothing of the essential grunt work involved — at least in academic writing — in structuring an argument that is grounded in extensive research. How to bring it all together? How to focus your attention on the single thing that feels authentic? How, in other words, do you locate the place from where you speak?
Reading Mary Karr’s latest book, The Art of Memoir, I came upon a sentence that summed up for me the way into this question. ‘The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.’ Start, in other words, from the inside, and then work your way outwards.
But there’s more: the best voices, says Karr, ‘include a writer’s insides’. They never lose site of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, its prejudices, its wants — all those filters that colour everything you think and see and remember and value.
In memoir, part of the writer’s job is to keep those filters visible and in play, something I consciously attempted to do in my work, especially in my latest book The Middlepause. In my work as an RLF Consultant Fellow with PhD students at the London School of Economics, I feel that getting them, too, to be properly acquainted with their insides is part and parcel of the job. They know about subjectivity (that is to say, they know what they think and feel), but many believe that academic writing involves erasing themselves, striving for an ‘objective’ voice that carries authority, flushes out bias. They fret about whether or not to use the first-person pronoun for fear of contaminating their dispassion. My feeling is that researchers gain critical insight into their work when made to answer the following question: what is your investment in this?
I suggest that this investment is their subjectivity, and that it goes far beyond whether or not they use the word ‘I’. I tell them that I’m talking about bringing all of themselves to their work, so that a vital curiosity animates everything they write, and that recognising the filters through which they process information will inflect every thought with self-awareness.