How to Keep On Writing

Ulf Kirchdorfer regrets that too many of his academic colleagues don’t write, and offers ideas on how they might.

April 29, 2015

Surprisingly, but maybe not surprisingly, many of us have colleagues who do not write. I mean by this not colleagues who are unable to write, though I have heard in a former job an unkind administrator who thought this true of everyone but himself. I am referring to persons in the academy, even in the field of English, who do not write critical articles, poetry, book reviews or any of the usual suspect activities associated with the profession.

When I say unable, I mean those who seem to never manage to sit down and write anything that they can share with colleagues, friends, family or even the least-read publication. One of the reasons can be lack of time, or at least that is one often given. Another could be that one is working at a college that emphasizes teaching and so writing is not a priority, or, if one is very cynical, that one has tenure and so does not have to write, which often seems to go hand in hand with being unable to write or find the time to write. After all, Netflix and Amazon Prime on the Roku await just inside the door after a day of teaching and grading essays and attending a meeting or two. Everyone needs a break and to relax, right, and who would associate writing with relaxation?

The answer is all too few are taking this rewarding plunge. Several institutions of higher learning exist where many faculty hardly write. But it does not have to be this way. Sadly, many of those who do not write are actually not happy not writing. They think, like many of our students, that they have nothing to say, that writing is a waste of time and, less like our students, they profess their back is hurting and writing will kill it, or teaching just plain wears them out. Some kind of vicious cycle exists, of educators not writing.

The educators who do not write might also say that there is enough writing out there, and so no need to add the stack of the equivalent of composition essays. There might also be those who write who prefer that their colleagues do not write, though that strikes me as probably the most selfish way a colleague can conduct him- or herself.

Through the years when I have encouraged colleagues to write, their stint at the keyboard is usually short-lived, and life soon back to normal, as if they were monks in the scriptorium content to illuminate manuscripts of essays. However, the monks practiced all sorts of subversions with interesting and distinctive illustrations and commentary, and it saddens me to think that some colleagues go through the world with the view of being graders, marking thesis elements as not being parallel, comma splices needing fixing as opposed to sprouting like weeds, or verb tenses being irregular as opposed to dancing more freely than their logical (non)existence in Benjy's world of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

I do not pretend to have the answers to get colleagues to start writing, but if I were an administrator, which I do not want to be, I would create a committee where faculty would meet to discuss writings they worked on outside of the meeting, as part of their committee duties. In this committee, sonnets could mix with papers on unified field theory, book reviews with novels in progress, 10-minute plays with personal experience papers on the teaching of computing, in what would be a mixer of colleagues coming together from different departments in the college. Just think how much useful work and happiness could emerge from such committee meetings, and the world could probably do with one less committee of seriousness or really leave that "missing" committee and work to those who are knowledgeable and have a passion for such work.

Yes, at the beginning this committee work of writing (not reports) would be difficult and at times prove frustrating, as when one begins an exercise program. Soon, keeping at it -- and a large part of writing is simply keeping at it, as we certainly tell our students -- would likely provide intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  

I am perfectly aware that my proposal might seem naïve to some, though I am confident our college has administrators who would encourage the establishment of this unusual committee. In the absence of such, stick your neck out. There are many speaking opportunities and you can use those as an excuse, should you feel you need an excuse for writing, to get reacquainted with the keyboard or acquainted with the keyboard in a different way. The current essay is a result of a gracious invitation to speak at an honors society combined with my opening my mouth and asking, "What topic?" instead of pulling something out of a drawer. Quick as a gunslinger and with a gleam in her eye, my dean suggested I speak on how students could keep on writing while entering their professions. I wound up writing two essays.

Still can't carve out that time and space for writing? Unless you are in relationship with or married to someone like Martha Stewart, your home can really use a little less dusting. And don't even think about using cleaning the baseboards as an excuse not to write. If you spend less time hunting, fishing, climbing indoor walls or participating in like adrenaline-rush activities, you will be amazed and pleased at the endorphin rush a stint of writing can bring, when it is going really well or you are up against a tight deadline, the latter much like fighting a hungry bear, it with huge teeth and claws, and all you have is a little plastic knife.

While I do not want to suggest any relationship status changes, it is amazing how many persons are not supportive of writing. If and when you enter a relationship, make sure it does not include shutting the door on your writing. Be certain that your significant other is supportive of your sitting in front of the computer tapping the keys in your own wonderful world and doesn't annoyingly ask what you are doing when you are sitting in the backyard with a lap desk, some paper and felt-tip pen, hunched over. You will find or already have found many who are jealous of the time you spend writing or think writing is a waste of time.

Since summers appear to be occasions much like New Year's, when people make resolutions they do not keep, please tell yourself you will write a few assignments this summer, and it wouldn't hurt now that you have some time to nudge a colleague and meet over coffee, even radically outside, in the sun, to discuss what you have written. Any other option is just not acceptable.


Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.


Back to Top