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.