Friday, December 28, 2012

Lessons Learned from Writing the Academic-ish Essay

Three weeks ago, I'd have been finishing my essay that explores women poets who use Greek mythology to explore the workplace, primarily workplaces outside the home.  It was an interesting experience, and before too much more time slips away, I thought it might be useful to talk about what I learned in doing it.

I've said that the idea for this essay came about in an ideal way.  I went to a conference to present a paper on female poets and the use of both mythology and fairy tales.  During the question and answer session, I remember saying that I observed that female poets tend to use mythology to talk about work and fairy tales to talk about home.  So when I saw the call for essays for a collection on women poets and mythology, I thought back to my comment and wrote up a proposal.

I still think that women poets use fairy tales to talk about home life.  I didn't discover as many female poets using Greek myth to explore the workplace as I thought I remembered.

Luckily, I am one of those poets who uses Greek myth in just that way--and my proposal was clear that I would be using myself as a case study.  So that was fortunate.

I did write to a wide variety of poets, just in case they had any obscurely published/unpublished work that I wouldn't know about.  Most of them did not, but everyone was uniformly kind.  I'm aware that most people sincerely want to help, and it was great to have this potent reminder.

The essay had to be between 2700 and 3300 words.  I thought my largest problem might be in keeping under the word count.  After all, I remember writing papers of double and triple that length in grad school.  Nope--my essay came in at just the right amount, and there were days when I thought I might have trouble getting to the minimum.  That was a fear of mine when I wrote essays in grad school too.

Notice, though, that I said days.  Yes, it took me days to write this essay.  In grad school, I would routinely finish several papers in a week, or even a week-end.  Of course, I'd done more researching and planning and preparing--there was less writing to discover what I had to say.

The benefit to a longer writing process:  I could return to the writing and say, "Wow.  That's clunky.  Jeez--there's no transition between these chunks of the essay."  I could say, "This bit is interesting, but it's off topic--throw it out."  To be honest, I didn't make those kind of cuts until the end.  Just like when I was a grad student, I wanted credit for all the work I had done.  I twisted that chunk into all sorts of shapes trying to make it fit, but in the end, I had to admit that it didn't.  I felt oddly proud of excising it.

I even wrote a poem, because I needed an example to support a point.  Perhaps I shouldn't admit this.  I can hear graduate school professors recoiling in horror.  But I thought it was kind of cool.  My immersing myself into the topic left me inspired, and it was neat to be able to use one of the poems that I had written in response to the academic writing I'd been doing.

It's good to do this kind of writing again, to remember what it's like to do it, to have a bit of a taste of what our students go through.  It's good to feel the achiness of these writing muscles--and good to feel them limber up again.

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