How to be yourself when writing non-fiction? Thoughts on identity and academic writing.

Another post (hope it will be a short one) in response to something I’ve just read.

Seeing new people coming to the blog (thank you much by the way!), I checked some other blogs and stumbled upon a great post about identity (here), which made me realize a few things about myself and some of the problems those of us who write other things than fiction, that is primarily academic papers.

How can you stay true to yourself while not being able to say “I” while you write? Is this possible to show who you are when you have to be objective and serious? Is this even a problem, considering that when you choose to write a paper or a dissertation, you immediately choose to follow a set of rules that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the rules of writing fiction?

Well, I think that no matter what you write, you always put yourself into perspective and thus, question your identity. The process of writing itself is as much liberating as it is coordinative and constructive. The way you choose to align your words in a sentence says a lot about who you are.

Of course, if you write a dissertation in physics or biology, there might be less room for self exploring than when you embark upon the journey of a dissertation in literary studies. Then again, there is nothing worse than an academic paper that confuses genres and presents an author the way a writer approaches his characters. I am all for the most sober style possible when it comes to an academic piece.

But then again, whilst a novelist gets to “hide behind its characters” (larvatus prodeo), the academic speaks for himself, without the possibility to put on any masks nor play with any riddles. Even more so, the academic has to be as plain as possible so that he is well understood by anyone who reads him. (Of course, some papers and dissertations are not suited for the untrained reader, but the best ones out there are those who convey complicated ideas in an uncomplicated matter. It’s all about pedagogy). So he is made completely bare in front of its readers, with no place to hide, his ideas exposed in the harsh light of University and library bulbs.

And yet, he has to stay completely neutral and never let the passion speak before his rational thoughts.

Academic writing asks the question of what it is that defines who we are (as writers, to start):

  • Are we a sum of our emotions and passions? Any good literary analysis or even theoretical essay stems from a deep belief in something: an idea, a methodology, a point of view. Without morals being involved, the question of right or wrong is always at the center of any academical debate. And a debate about whether someone is right or wrong in his or her treatment of a character, of an author or of a scientific discovery can be quite passionate.
  • This leads me to my next question: don’t we discover ourselves mostly through dialogue? The kind of dialogue Socrates and Plato practiced a long time ago, but also the kind that flourished in literary circles and various societies through the Renaissance and the Modern times? Confronting ourselves to something or someone is one of the best ways to understand who we are and what we believe in. Even more so when we have to dig a little deeper than the obvious emotions of pleasure or rejection. And every time we enter a debate, we take a stand for or against something. That means that every time we enter a debate, we discover or add a trait to our personality, building it brick by brick, idea by idea.
  • The debate is also the place where our ideas get challenged, where we, our identity as a whole gets challenged. Yet another occasion to work on ourselves.

Of course, there are a lot of academics out there who don’t really bother to get challenged by new ideas or new ways of thinking. But there are also those who embrace the changes and adapt to them in a way nature adapts to its own evolution.

The writing process, however heated a spoken argument can be, is still a solitary process. And very much so. And the most difficult part is that once you are set to writing alone at your desk, you kind of have to let the voices of the opposition speak, even if it means making them speak in your own mind. The battle against a fellow academic becomes a struggle within yourself, and it is wrenching. Still, one of the best ways to find and affirm your own voice and challenge, yet again, your own identity.

Tell me what you think!

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3 thoughts on “How to be yourself when writing non-fiction? Thoughts on identity and academic writing.

  1. What a great post this is!

    I come from a military writing background, so I can’t speak to writing academically, but I believe they’re somewhere along the same lines. When I wrote my first novel, it ran about 100K words all in the first person POV.

    The whole thing made me so anxious, all I could see were the thousands of ‘I’s floating around that I had to go back and change the whole thing.

    I’m better at it now, but in that endurance trial of editing, I learned so many things about expressing my characters through their thoughts, actions and feelings, it was astounding.

    I tell my students at seminars to try an experiment. Without using the word ‘I’ for a single hour, they’re to mingle around with one another, taking notes about the characters of the people around them. It’s a lot of fun to see the small things you can convey to another through small talk conversation with strangers.

    Sorry for the rambling! Cheers!

  2. Hi! Thank you so much for replying! I’m glad you liked the post. I think when you write fiction one of the most difficult things is to say “I”. Because there is nothing harder than to distance yourself from your own thoughts, your own identity, all the while trying to put it into perspective. Thats why writing in third person is “easier”.

    When you write about someone though, and not in a fiction way, but in an academic way (about someone real), it’s kind of the opposite: you have to write without really “giving a voice” to your “character”, because there is no character and no voice to give, you have to stay objective and not let yourself speak through someone else’s life and ideas. That’s why writing biographies is very difficult.

    Thanks for your feedback!

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