Remember that essay my colleague H challenged me to write about the Aboriginal Australia course this past June? Well, he's invited me to read from it at this month's meeting of the Writing Progam's Faculty Reading Series (next week!). Exciting, but more than a little terrifying. I don't think of myself as a writer, and, while I've given papers and lectures, I have never given a reading. On the other hand, I did think this essay - a "personal narrative" more akin to my voice here in this blog than in the academic things I occasionally joylessly write - was close to ready for prime time.
Think again! H and I met this afternoon, and, more and less gently, he made clear that my attempt not to sound like an academic paper sounded like - an academic paper. In order to succeed for a general audience and especially as something personal and autobiographical, many changes are needed. These came in all sizes, from word choices and tenses to the relative proportions of different sections. (I was foolish to think the main thing was shorter sentences, though they'll help too.) The main thing, however, was that in my first version I was not "self-dramatizing."
My first reaction was that this was as it should be. "Self-dramatizing" sounds like a criticism of self-involved and self-indulgent writing. But H's use of the term was different. Part of the task of writing in the autobiographical mode is bringing the self clearly, precisely, convincingly to the fore. Academic writing does the opposite. Even as we often sense axes being ground, the voice is almost pathologically lacking in "self-dramatization." In any case, mine here was. At best I described feeling but didn't convey it. Even places where I thought I'd cannily let some emotion through - like when I said that "I was not happy" about a student's bringing Elizabeth Durack into my class - seemed to him lifeless and untrue. Judging from the way I'd described it to him, H suggested, I should have written "I was full of conflict and fury."
More than style is at issue here. Am I the sort of person who feels conflict and fury? (Actually, yes, I am.) Can I admit this - first to myself, then to my readers? It could definitely make for a more interesting read.
H's criticisms filled me with, er, fury and conflict. Didn't he see that it was me he was attacking, my voice? But the fury soon ceded place to conflict, as his precise and pitch-perfect insights into particular word choices made clear that I had not, in fact, allowed a voice - a real voice, not a bemused, detached academic one - into my essay at all! And then came gratitude, even a little pride. As he taught me to scratch the polished surface of my text, deeper, more interesting things came out. He wasn't attacking me but rescuing me. There is a deeper voice, deeper than the careful academic calibrations and modest suggestions, knowing colloquialisms and superficial ironies. I can't remember the last time anyone paid such close attention to my writing or use of language.
One example. In a passage where I worry that I have merely been projecting my own preconceptions and desires on to Aboriginal materials, I write: "But I persist in feeling that this wasn't just projection." I thought this was bold. It's really the opposite. Instead of owning my conviction, taking a risk, I disown it by attributing it to some obscure "persistence" from some "I" who isn't quite me. (It could be even worse than that, since it can seem the wilfulness of the intrepid colonizer.) It takes me another paragraph to get to the limp "This is a point where I feel I may have learned something new from Aboriginal traditions," But I've already lost the battle, and the interest of the reader/listener. What I need to be saying is something like "Projection or no, I feel I have learned something new."
So it's back to the drawing board. I must in any case omit or compress a good third of the essay. But H has inspired me to try to name and own the emotions and desires which course beneath the surface of the text. For a personal narrative they are the very heart of the matter, but I can see that greater clarity about them might help my academic writing, too. I'm not sure where I'll end up this time. It may not be conflict and fury I admit to, but I promise it'll be truer than the empty "not happy."